and Georgia Department of Natural Resources Reports
The disease that has killed millions of bats in the
eastern U.S. has now spread to caves in Dade County’s Cloudland Canyon State
Park, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources confirmed in a Tuesday press
A National Park Service biologist
and volunteers discovered about 15 tri-colored bats with visible white-nose
symptoms in a Lookout Mountain Cave at Chickamauga
and Chattanooga National Military Park in late February, DNR announced, and on
March 5, a group led by a Georgia DNR biologist also found tri-colored bats with
visible symptoms in Sittons Cave at Cloudland Canyon.
A bat from each northwest Georgia site was sent to the
Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, and histopathology
confirmed both bats had white-nose syndrome.
At press time on Tuesday, Cloudland Canyon State Park
reported it had received no information yet as to whether the bad news would
mean closure for Siddons, a popular cave for guided tours during the warm
months. The cave is in any case currently closed until April 1 to avoid disturbing
normal bat hibernation.
White-Nose Syndrome takes its name from the white
fungus, Geomyces destructans, found on the muzzles, ears and wings of infected
bats. White-nose, or WNS, spreads mainly through bat-to-bat contact, and there
is no evidence it infects humans or other animals. But researchers in any case
routinely disinfect their clothing and gear lest they carry spores from cave to
The disease was first detected in New York state in
2006 and has since spread steadily to 22 states and five Canadian provinces,
killing as many as 6.7 million bats and threatening endangered species such as
Indiana and gray bats. In some caves and mines, 90 to 100 percent of the bats
In winter 2012, as reported then by the Sentinel,
researchers at Siddons found the bats there healthy. Last year, though, the
disease was found in north Alabama and on the Tennessee side of Chickamauga and
Chattanooga National Military Park in Hamilton County, and on Monday
authorities in South Carolina announced that WNS had been confirmed there.
“We’ve been expecting the discovery of WNS in Georgia
after it was confirmed in Tennessee and Alabama counties last season,” said
Trina Morris, DNR wildlife biologist. “Still, I don’t think anyone can prepare
themselves to see it for the first time.”
To address the threat of WNS, Georgia DNR’s Wildlife
Resources Division has been conducting surveys to better assess bat populations
while limiting scientific activities in caves. Biologists have worked with
cavers, cave owners and conservation organizations to raise awareness about
limiting trips into caves and following national decontamination protocols for
clothes and gear.
DNR now urges cavers to reduce trips to Georgia caves.
It estimates that about 15 percent of Georgia’s caves are on state-managed
The National Park Service closed all caves at
Chickamauga and Chattanooga
National Military Park to the public in 2009 in an
attempt to reduce the chance of importation of the white-nose pathogen. Park
caves will remain closed to minimize the risk of spreading the disease to other
The National Park Service has seen no evidence of mass
mortality in bats due to WNS at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military
Park. About six dead bats were found at Sittons, although the cause of death
was not determined. Researchers there estimated that a third of the some 1600
live bats seen in the cave showed signs of white-nose.
White-nose thrives in the cold, humid conditions of
caves and mines. The fungus leads to bats being awakened too often from
hibernation and experiencing less intense torpor, causing them to use up their
fat reserves. They often starve to death as they leave caves in winter to
search for insects that have not yet emerged. There is also evidence the fungus
may cause some bats to die from dehydration or electrolyte imbalances.
There is no known cure for WNS.
Georgia has few known large hibernacula, or
hibernation areas. Yet WNS poses a significant threat to the 16 bats species in
the state. Of nine species confirmed with either the disease or the fungus so
far, eight are found in Georgia. Two, the Indiana and gray bats, are federally
endangered species. One, the small-footed myotis, is state-listed as a species
Bats play a critical role in ecosystems, serving as a
natural pest control that saves the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3
billion a year and also helping limit insects that can spread disease to
people. Many bat populations are already in decline because of habitat loss.
Their ability to rebound is limited by reproduction rates as low as one
offspring a year.
“Some bat populations were beginning to recover due to
conservation efforts to protect caves and other critical habitats,” Ms. Morris
said. “WNS now threatens these populations with significant declines that they
may not be able to recover from.”
According to the National Park Service Office of
Public Health, WNS does not appear to pose a threat to human health since the
fungus that causes the disease only grows at temperatures well below human body
temperature. Yet, while people are not at risk of contracting WNS, the public
is cautioned against handling bats, which can carry other diseases such as