The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has confirmed white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease responsible for the deaths of millions of bats in eastern North America, in a fifth county in North Carolina.
The disease was confirmed this month in bats collected from an abandoned mine in Haywood County. It was previously discovered in a retired Avery County mine, a cave at Grandfather Mountain State Park, a McDowell County cave, an abandoned mine in Yancey County, and near the Commission’s Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education in Transylvania County.
In March 2010, the Commission took necessary steps to get ahead of the disease by adopting the “White-Nose Syndrome Surveillance and Response Plan for North Carolina” in concert with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other partners. The plan outlines steps to protect bats while allowing biologists to pinpoint and investigate a possible outbreak as quickly as possible.
“We and our conservation partners are focusing resources on collaborative efforts, including monitoring the spread of the disease, monitoring North Carolina bat populations, and finding ways to address the effects of the disease on bat populations,” said Chris McGrath, Wildlife Diversity Program Coordinator with the Wildlife Commission.
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome has been detected on nine species of bats so far in North America. In North Carolina, 17 species of bats are known to occur, and eight of those are species on which the fungus has been detected nationwide. Three species in North Carolina have been documented with the disease.
Neither the fungus, nor white-nose syndrome, has been detected in any of the so-called tree-roosting bats, which typically roost individually in or on trees in the warmer months and either migrate south for the winter or hibernate individually outside of caves. The fungus also has not been detected in the two species of big-eared bats that occur in North Carolina.
What Does it Mean for People?
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 significant. Bats play a significant role as night-flying insect predators.
While some may be concerned about bats seen flying around their backyards or roosting in backyard bat houses, it is unlikely they will spread white-nose syndrome. 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) in high humidity conditions. Although these conditions are prevalent during hibernation, bat houses are used during the summer months and have no more potential to spread fungal spores than do natural roosts, such as a hollow tree.
Some behavioral signs of white-nose syndrome include bats flying during the day. There have been reports from citizens of bats exhibiting this behavior this winter in Henderson and Watauga counties. Biologists suspect that all of the mountain counties probably will have the disease soon, if not already, regardless of whether it has been confirmed it or not.
In 2011, the first year the disease was detected in North Carolina, a bat from one of the southernmost counties — Transylvania — was confirmed to have the disease.
What You Can Do to Help Monitor Bats
As part of a regional monitoring effort, the Wildlife Commission is conducting car-based acoustic bat surveys. The surveys, a part of the N.C. Bat Acoustic Monitoring Program, are conducted throughout the mountain region of the state by volunteers. These citizen scientists are typically from different fields, ranging from a college professor to a nurse to a stay-at-home mom.
Volunteers set-up bat detectors on their car roofs and drive 20-mile routes. The routes are driven twice during the survey season, which is May 15 to July 15. Surveys start 30 minutes after sunset and take approximately one hour to complete. Routes are available near Andrews, Cherokee, Franklin, Hot Springs, Marion, Morganton, Murphy and Robbinsville.
These surveys help state biologists gather important information about species composition and distribution throughout the region, as well as help monitor the effects of white-nose syndrome on North Carolina’s bat populations.
For more information about adopting a route or the Bat Acoustic Monitoring Program, contact Corinne Diggins at email@example.com or call 828-273-3991. For more information on white-nose syndrome and how it’s negatively affecting bat populations, visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s website (http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/ ) or the National Speleological Society’s website (http://www.caves.org/WNS/).