White-Nose Syndrome Threatens Bat Populations

Carter Caves State Resort Park and Kingdom Come State Park in eastern Kentucky can be added to the list of state and national parks who have noted white-nose syndrome (WNS) among their bat populations. First discovered in 2006 in New York near Albany, white-nose syndrome is a disease that affects hibernating bats, causing them to wake and eventually venture into the winter weather and die. There is no cure for the syndrome that is believed to primarily be passed from bat to bat. Since 2006, the disease has claimed the lives of over 6 million bats in the eastern third of the United States. While the disease does not affect humans, visitors can carry the disease to caves, causing the closing of certain at-risk caves.

Early this year, WNS was detected for the first time at another park in Kentucky: Mammoth Cave National Park. The infected bat was discovered in Mammoth’s Long Cave, an undeveloped 1.3 mile long cave. Closed to visitors for upwards of 80 years, Long Cave is home to the park’s largest bat hibernaculum. It houses endangered Indiana bats and gray bats as well as other non-threatened species.

Rangers at Mammoth Cave have been working to delay and combat WNS for many years. They have tested bats every year since 2009. Scientists regularly visit the entrances of bat roost-caves (hibernacula) looking for unusual bat behavior. Three solar-powered bat detectors have also been placed outside hibernacula to record bat calls.

“Because we suspected white-nose syndrome was coming, we partnered with various researchers to gather baseline data on bat populations and bat ecology,” said Mammoth Cave National Park Superintendent Sarah Craighead, “The data provides important information on which bat species are present and how many, when they give birth, and when they feed. We now have five years of data collected prior to the arrival of white-nose syndrome, and will continue monitoring through the course of the disease.”

Mammoth Cave is teaming with federal, state and tribal agencies to put procedures into place to prevent the spread of the disease. While it seems to be primarily contracted from bat to bat, humans can play a role in spreading WNS. Geomycles destructans, a cold-adapted fungus is the cause of the disease. Though humans are not affected by it, spores of G. destructans can be transmitted on human clothing and skin from cave to cave. Many parks have instituted new policies for disinfecting prior to entering caves. Mammoth Cave, for example, is requiring all participants of cave tours to walk the length of an artificial turf mat to remove spores and dirt after exiting the Cave. The park also asks that all visitors wash their hands and change their clothes before entering any other caves or mines. Other parks have been forced to close parks for visitor use until they can safely protect bat populations.

White-nose syndrome has been detected in 10 national parks. The National Park Service has released a series of informative videos intended to work against the spread of WNS. The three-part series of videos provides further background information about the disease and outlines some of the ways humans can assist in preventing the spread of WNS, including those listed above.

“White-nose syndrome is killing hibernating bats at unprecedented rates and has the potential to cause extinction in some species,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “We need the public’s help to limit the spread of this disease so we are asking visitors to take a look at these videos and understand what steps they can take when touring or exploring caves.”

The threat to species of bats also presents an issue for U.S. agriculture. It has been estimated that bats eating insects saves billions of dollars every year for farmers who would be forced to adopt new procedures without bats.

Kentucky is one of 30 states that will be receiving federal funds to put toward the study of WNS. Of the 30 states, 19 have noted cases of WNS within their state lines. Kentucky will receive a share of $32,000 for research.

“This support will help the state as well as the larger national response effort in trying to better understand how the disease is affecting our North American bat populations,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Ann Froschauer. “Some of these states where White Nose Syndrome is not yet, will be using this money to try to help in advance and preparation and expectation that the disease may reach them, trying to figure out sort of where their bat populations are, the distribution, what kinds of bats they have.”

With species of bats at risk, this research will be important in moving forward to institute preventative procedures and hopefully finding a cure. Check back with the Oh, Ranger! blog for updates and progress on WNS.

Image: An infected eastern pipistrelle bat at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Source: NPS