Biologists are afraid a fungus that has killed millions of bats along the East Coast could soon be in South Carolina, if not already.
Called “White-nose syndrome,” it first flared up in New York five years ago and has since wiped out more than 5.5 million bats in 16 states and Canada, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some groups, such as Bat Conservation International, fear the fungus could cause the extinction of the animals completely in some areas.
It was detected in North Carolina’s Transylvania County for the first time last year and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is afraid it will soon reach the mountains of the Upstate. “I really expected to see it last year,” agency biologist Mary Bunch said, “I was relieved not to, but we really expect to see it soon.”
Bunch said the fungus grows on the bats while they are hibernating, causing them to wake up too early in the winter and starve to death with no insects to eat. “It’s really an awful thing to see,” she said, “They’ll die on the landscape. Sometimes, they’ll die right at the entrance to a cave.”
There is no known cure for White-nose syndrome, but bats’ immune systems are able to fight it– as long as they are active. Once the bat goes into hibernation for several months, the fungus grows in its fur. If enough time passes, the fungus eventually covers the bat’s wing membranes.
Bunch said she and others hope the shorter winters of South Carolina can work to the bats’ advantage. She said some of the animals likely took advantage of the warmer weather in recent weeks to forage for insects, helping fight off the disease.
DNR will spend the rest of the month checking hibernation sites in the Upstate. Bunch said they have not yet found the fungus in the two colonies searched so far, but she’s sure it’s only a matter of time. If not this year– then eventually.
“It’s like standing on the tracks watching a train bear down on you,” she said.
Bunch said if bats do start to die off in South Carolina, it will likely lead to a major increase in agricultural pests. For instance, a single brown bat can eat hundreds of insects each night– helping keep the insect population in check.