Unfortunately, more undeserved prejudice exists about bats than any other animal, except, of course, serpents.
In European lore, vampires (a word derived from the Serbian “wampir”) were bloodsucking ghosts, dead men’s souls that siphoned blood from sleeping victims.
Sarah Davis loves bats. They’ve been the wintertime residents of Linville Caverns for as long as she can remember, a marker of the seasons she looks forward to each year. The cave, a commercial cavern near Marion, has been in Davis’ family since the 1940s — she and the bats go way back.
“There would be hundreds of them in the winter, and I absolutely loved them,” Davis recalls.
Biologists recently confirmed white-nose syndrome at a third site in North Carolina, meaning two counties are now positive for the disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of bats in the eastern United States.
The disease was confirmed late last month in Yancey County. It was previously discovered in a retired Avery County mine and in a cave at Grandfather Mountain State Park.
“We knew that white-nose syndrome was coming and began preparing for its arrival, but we have a lot of work to do to address the impact of this disease on bats and our natural systems” said Chris McGrath, wildlife diversity program coordinator in the N.C. Wildlife Commission’s Wildlife Management Division.
While much remains to be learned about white-nose syndrome, there is evidence that people may inadvertently spread the fungus believed to cause the disease from cave-to-cave. Therefore, the most important step people can take to help bats is staying out of caves and mines.
While there are no known direct human health effects of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, the impact upon humans, other wildlife, and agriculture as a result of declines in bat populations could be substantial. Bats play a significant role as night-flying insect predators.
At this time, the fungus appears to grow on bat skin in the cave environment during hibernation. Infected bats may spread the fungal spores to other bats and roosts during the warmer summer months; however, the fungus only grows in a narrow range of temperatures (41 to 56 degrees Fahrenheit) in high humidity conditions.
White-nose syndrome, the disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of bats in the Eastern United States, has been discovered in a retired Avery County mine and in a cave at Grandfather Mountain State Park, marking the arrival of the disease in North Carolina, according to a media alert sent out today (Feb. 9) by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
On Feb. 1, a team of Commission biologists were conducting a bat inventory of the closed Avery County mine where they saw numerous bats displaying symptomatic white patches of fungus on their skin. Five bats from the mine were sent to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study unit at the University of Georgia for testing, which confirmed the presence of white-nose syndrome.
In late January, a team of state, federal, and private biologists were conducting a bat inventory of a cave at Grandfather Mountain when they discovered a single dead bat. Following state white-nose syndrome surveillance protocols, the bat was sent for testing and it has been confirmed for white-nose syndrome.
“White-nose syndrome is confirmed in Virginia and Tennessee, so we expected we would be one of the next states to see the disease,” said Gabrielle Graeter, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “This discovery marks the arrival of one of the most devastating threats to bat conservation in our time.”
In the Northeast, the disease has decimated some species of bats. It seems to be most fatal during the winter months, when hundreds of bats are hibernating together in caves and mines. It’s not known if the disease will similarly affect all species in all regions of the country, though bat mortality and the diversity of species affected in the Northeast suggest the impacts will be significant.
The discovery of white-nose syndrome comes as Commission biologists work through bat inventory and white-nose syndrome surveillance efforts at numerous caves and mines in Western North Carolina this winter as part of a grant awarded by the Service to several states on the leading edge of the disease’s spread.
North Carolina is home to three federally endangered bats, the Virginia big-eared, Indiana, and gray. Virginia big-eared bats are known from the.
“The discovery does not bode well for the future of many species of bats in western North Carolina,” said Sue Cameron with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Although researchers are working hard to learn more about the disease, right now so little is known. There has been some evidence that humans may inadvertently spread the disease from cave to cave, so one simple step people can take to help bats is to stay out of caves and mines.”
“Cavers are passionate about what they do and we truly understand that asking them to stay out of caves is no small request and we greatly appreciate their sacrifice,” said Cameron, noting that the western North Carolina caving club, Flittermouse Grotto, has been very supportive of efforts to protect the area’s bats.
In 2009, fearing the disease could be transferred from cave to cave by humans, the Service released a cave advisory asking people to refrain from entering caves in states where white-nose syndrome has been confirmed and all adjoining states. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission holds a protective easement on the mine and both it and the Grandfather Mountain cave have been gated and closed to the public for years to protect hibernating bats.
A podcast released by Great Smoky Mountains National Park outlines efforts to save bats from White-nose syndrome, a potentially fatal disease sweeping through the Smokies’ bat population.
The park is home to at least 11 species of bats, a primary group of flying mammals that play a critical role in the health of ecosystems by consuming forest and agricultural crop insects — such as moths, beetles and mosquitoes.
In the winter of 2010, two bats in a park cave tested positive for a newly described fungus, Geomyces destructans, which is thought to be the cause of White-nose syndrome.
To help prevent the unintentional spread of the fungus, the park closed all of its 16 caves and two mine complexes to people in 2009.
In addition to the podcast, a new bat exhibit has been installed at the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center.
“The educational materials provide a wealth of information on bat biology, their roosting and foraging behavior, the potential implications of white-nose syndrome and what researchers and biologists are doing to manage this threat, as well as how the public can help protect bats,” said Bill Stiver, park wildlife biologist.
Produced by Great Smoky Mountains Association, the podcast is posted on the park’s website, www.nps.gov/grsm/photosmultimedia/wns-bat-video.htm.
New data suggest that bats, like birds, may follow specifically defined routes when migrating rather than simply migrating in a dispersed way across a broad area. Wind energy turbines located in these routes may cause fatalities of migrating bats.
As new sources of energy such as wind farms are being built in greater numbers, their impact on other aspects of the environment are getting attention.
The migratory behavior of bats, a topic that has received little attention in the past, is the subject of new study. Wind turbines have been the cause of many bat fatalities, but these installations also offer a new opportunity to examine bat migration habits. This is because the majority of bat fatalities caused by wind turbines around the world have involved migratory bats during fall migration.
Over a period of seven years, scientists used acoustic monitoring and carcass searches at nine wind energy facilities across southern Alberta, Canada, to determine if bat activity and fatality were concentrated in certain areas or evenly distributed across the landscape. Their findings indicate that as bats migrated, they concentrated along selected routes at night and sought daytime roosting sites. Migratory tree-roosting bats, including hoary bats, eastern red bats, and silver-haired bats, are the North American species most affected by wind farms.
The full text of this article, “Geographic Variation in Activity and Fatality of Migratory Bats at Wind Energy Facilities can be read at www2.allenpress.com/pdf/mamm-90-06-1341-1349.pdf.
It’s only a matter of time before the fungal infection white nose syndrome (WNS) appears in North Carolina, say wildlife experts.
White nose syndrome is decimating bat populations across the country. It was first reported in the winter of 2006-2007 from a cave near Albany, N.Y. The disease, named for the white fungus that often appears on infected bats’ noses, muzzles and wings, is responsible for the deaths of millions of bats across a variety of species and is spreading rapidly.
WNS has now been detected from Ontario and Quebec, Canada down the eastern seaboard from Vermont to Virginia and Tennessee and just recently westward to Missouri and Oklahoma. Oklahoma presents pause for added concern because WNS was detected in a new species — cave myotis — that ranges across the Southwest to southern California and south to Mexico and Central America. At least 14 states have documented the disease.
WNS has not, at this date, been detected in North Carolina. It has been documented in Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. And North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Gabrielle Graeter has reported finding bats in Swain County with damage to their wings that is consistent with WNS. But, according to Graeter, biologist won’t be able to determine if the fungus is present until the bats are in hibernation this winter.
One of the sites in Tennessee, the White Oak Blowhole cave in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, raises special concern because it is the largest-known hibernacula in the state for the federally endangered Indiana bat, and might serve as the overwintering site for nearly nine percent of the entire Indiana bat population.
Bill Stiver, biologist for the park, said that it would probably be next spring before biologists would have any idea about mortality rates in the park.
“We are monitoring bats this winter, but primarily at the entrance to the caves. We don’t want to exacerbate the situation by disturbing hibernating bats,” he said. “We probably won’t go into the caves until late February.”
Stiver said that because of cave closures across the park and questions from the public the park is focusing on educational materials. “We’re working on new exhibits for the visitor’s centers and a new podcast regarding white nose syndrome.”
Endangered species like the Indiana bat and gray bat are clearly in danger, but even more disconcerting are reports that common bats like the little brown bat (the most common bat in the east) could also be in danger of extinction. Researchers from Boston University and the University of California Santa Cruz ran computer models suggesting that little brown bats could be extirpated from the Northeast in as few as 25 years.
WNS has proven to be incredibly lethal across the Northeast with mortality rates in many hibernacula approaching 90 percent. According to reports from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, one of the worst hit caves in the Adirondacks was Graphite Mine. The report noted that the population of little brown bats in that cave dropped from 185,000 before 2006 to approximately 2,000 now.
The environmental impact of the loss of bats across the landscape is a giant question mark. Bats are, without a doubt, the most prolific and successful organic bug zappers around. Studies done at Boston University point out that the million or more of bats that have died from WNS over the past four years would have consumed more than 694 tons of insects each year.
Bill Stiver, biologist with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said that most of the research done to date has been with bat populations in the Northeast and that researchers here are holding their breath.
“We’re hoping that since it’s a cold-loving fungus, our bats across the Southeast will not see such adverse impacts,” he said. “But we honestly don’t know at this point. The next couple of years will tell us how our bats will be impacted.”
Nine bat species across the South are at risk from a deadly fungus decimating certain bat populations known as white-nose syndrome.
The disease has now been confirmed as close as Tennessee and Virginia. Susan Loeb, a leading bat expert with the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, says it is just a matter of time before white-nose syndrome is detected in North Carolina where nine bat species are presumed at risk.
“Little-brown bats and Indiana bats are among the most threatened by white-nose syndrome — meaning their populations could either be seriously decimated or become extinct,” said Loeb. “Historically, little-brown bats were quite common, but the species appears to be especially susceptible to the fungus and is being hit hard in the states where WNS has taken hold.”
White nose syndrome affects bats that hibernate in caves and mines. The disease received its name because of the white fungus often seen on the noses, muzzles and wings of infected bats. More than a million bats have died as the result of white-nose syndrome.
So far, white nose syndrome is confirmed in 11 states from Massachusetts to Virginia. The first case of the disease in the United States was reported in New York in 2006. Some experts believe the disease originated in Europe.
Throughout the years-long bickering over the future of the Dillsboro Dam, the little brown bats that spent the summer in the dam’s powerhouse had no voice.
Each April, the little browns would return to the Tuckaseegee from their winter homes in caves and mines throughout the region in order to mate and enjoy the bounty of insects the river furnished. They established a burgeoning colony in the dam’s old powerhouse, which offered the perfect warm, dry shelter.
“That was an ideal place for them by the dam,” said Mark Cantrell, field biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “With the powerhouse and the food sources on the river, it was just about perfect.”
The powerhouse was demolished along with the dam this winter.
Cantrell worked with biologists from Duke Energy to create mitigation plans for the different species of birds, bats, and fish affected by the radical overnight change. The idea of putting in bat boxes to replace the demolished powerhouse roost was Cantrell’s.
Duke erected four bat houses to accommodate the estimated 500 bats that colonized the powerhouse. Each four-compartment bat box has the capacity to accommodate about 250 bats. They are patterned after recommendations from Bat Conservation International.
T.J. Walker, the owner of the Dillsboro Inn perched on the river shore where the dam once stood, is also coping with the radical change in the landscape. Walker initially opposed Duke’s plan to take out the dam, but now he says he’s pleased to see the Tuckaseegee flowing wild and free beneath the deck of his inn. But Walker is worried about the bats.
“For as many bats as were in there, there are not enough houses,” Walker said. Walker doesn’t see how the boxes, roughly the size of a television set, will hold as many bats as biologists say they will.
Walker is not just a casual observer of the nocturnal hunters. He counts on them to keep the riverfront free of mosquitoes.
“We love the bats. They do pest control,” Walker said. “They make Dillsboro’s waterfront special. Our customers love looking at the bats. We don’t have a mosquito problem.”
Walker recently bought three additional bat houses himself because he has been worried by the sight of the bats swarming the site where the powerhouse once stood.
Cantrell believes there’s plenty of room for the Dillsboro bat colony in the new houses, but it will take them time to set up new roosts.
“I expect the bats to utilize the houses. They will come back,” Cantrell said. “Most bats will come back to an area like that. They’ll be a little surprised at first, but then they’ll start looking for other places nearby.”
Walker was concerned that the bat houses weren’t placed in close proximity to where the old powerhouse was, but are a quarter mile or more away. Cantrell believe the bats will find the houses, however.
Cantrell said the bat houses will be monitored for the next two years to see how well the bats have adjusted to the new surroundings. For both T.J. Walker and the bats, this spring involves more than just the normal change of seasons.
Becky Johnson contributed to this article.
In the spring, little brown bats form huge nursery colonies like the one observed at Dillsboro. A nursery colony may have thousands of bats in it. Maternity colonies are commonly found in warm sites in buildings or other structures and can occasionally be found in hollow trees. The female little brown bat gives birth to only one baby a year.
White Nose Syndrome just miles from WNC
The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) announced in mid-February that two bats from Worley’s cave had tested positive for White Nose Syndrome (WNS).
The cave, officially designated Morrell Cave by the U.S. Board on Geographical Names in 1980 but more commonly known as Worley’s or Morril’s cave, is located just southeast of Bluff City, Tenn., only about an hour and a half from Asheville.
Two tri-colored bats (formerly eastern pipistrelle) tested positive for the fungus (Geomyces destructans). While scientists are still not one hundred percent sure that the fungus is the sole causative agent, bat-to-bat-transmission of the fungus has been observed.
Whatever the cause, the malaise is clearly catastrophic. Mortality in some affected hibernacula has exceeded 90 percent. It is estimated that somewhere between one-half million and one million bats have succumbed to WNS, including at least 25,000 endangered Indiana bats.
Six species of bats — Indiana bat, little brown bat, big brown bat, northern long-eared bat, small-footed bat and tri-colored bat (formerly eastern pipistrelle) — are known to be susceptible to WNS.
Tennessee joins New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Virginia to become the tenth state to document WNS. Worley’s cave is the most southern and most western site, to date, where WNS has been recorded. The cave is only about 65 miles from known infected sites in Virginia.
But the prospect of further western and/or southern spread is a scary prospect for biologists and bat fanciers. Tennessee may have more caves than any state in the nation and a single cave in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hibernaculum for nearly nine percent of the total estimated population of endangered Indiana bats.
And now for things that make you go hmmmmm....
You and I and all the taxpayers across this great land have paid about $14 million for ivory-billed woodpecker conservation since 2005. Never mind the fact that not one ivory-billed woodpecker has been conclusively documented since the late 1930s early 1940s.
Bat researchers are overjoyed that the Obama administration has secured $1.9 million in funding for the study of WNS. Maybe if we glued feathers to their wings and took fuzzy videos, we could get some dollars to study this devastating disease.
Wait a minute! That would be forethought — what am I thinking?