With the recent discovery of a fungus that is associated with deadly bat disease in the Tennessee portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, wildlife biologists in North Carolina are keeping a watchful eye on the state’s bat populations and preparing for the possible arrival of white nose syndrome.
North Carolina is home to a close cadre of bat biologists who annually monitor the state’s bat populations. However, this year, in cooperation with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, they’re taking extra steps to protect bats and identify possible white nose outbreaks in the state.
“Given the potential impact this syndrome has had upon bat populations and the potential for broader impacts to the natural systems of this country, we are actively engaged with our conservation partners in the caving community and other agencies and organizations around the country to monitor the spread of this condition,” said Chris McGrath, a biologist and Wildlife Diversity Coordinator for the Wildlife Resources Commission.
“We’re taking all reasonable measures we can to prevent spreading the fungus, and participating in national efforts to identify the causes and seek solutions before we’ve lost many of our bat species that serve an absolutely critical function in nature.”
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission recently finalized the “White Nose Syndrome Surveillance and Response Plan for North Carolina,” in concert with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The plan outlines a number of steps to protect bats while allowing biologists to pinpoint and investigate a possible white nose outbreak as quickly as possible.
Some of the signs biologists are looking for in their monitoring are: white tufts of fungal growth on the bats’ muzzle, damaged wings, bats active or clustered outside a cave during cold temperatures, or thin or dehydrated bats. The data collected by biologists is compiled by the Commission to track population trends and to gauge impacts should white nose arrive in North Carolina.
In order to protect the bats from possible contamination, strict decontamination protocols for both clothing and equipment are followed by biologists working with bats.
“We don’t understand all the ways this disease can spread” said Sue Cameron, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “we know it can spread bat to bat, but we strongly suspect humans can inadvertently carry it from cave to cave on clothing or equipment.”
If an outbreak of white nose is suspected, state and federal biologists are prepared to investigate the extent of the possible infection, send suspected bats to be tested at the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study Lab at the University of Georgia veterinary school, and make the landowner aware of the situation and what he can do to help limit the disease’s spread.
Meanwhile, biologists are reaching out to people who may come in contact with bats, like animal control officers and cavers, letting them know what to look for and who to contact if they see anything suspicious. The western North Carolina caving community, led by the Flittermouse Grotto, has taken a lead role in communicating the severity of the issue to cavers and cave owners.
White nose syndrome was first documented in a New York cave in 2006 and has since spread into Canada and as far west as Missouri. It is nearly always fatal to many species of bats, wiping out cave populations within two or three years. Of special concern in North Carolina are the three federally-endangered bats found in the state - the Indiana, gray, and Virginia big-eared bat.
The North Carolina plan comes just as white-nose syndrome has migrated to the state’s borders and after all National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, and The Nature Conservancy caves in North Carolina were closed in the spring of 2009 to all but those researchers monitoring for white-nose syndrome.
Thus far preparation is focused on quickly identifying an outbreak and limiting transmission. There is no known treatment for the disease, though research is underway. Read the full article