A serious disease that has nearly wiped out some bat species in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states is now confirmed for the first time in South Carolina. A biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources said a dead bat found at Table Rock State Park in the Upstate had “White Nose Syndrome” (WNS).
The Geomyces destructans fungus that causes the disease has killed millions of bats in 21 states, but had not been reported in South Carolina until last month. It is caused by a fungus that grows on bats while they are hibernating. Because the bats’ immune system largely shuts down during hibernation, the disease can ravage colonies in the winter months. The disease does not appear to affect those bats that do not hibernate.
DNR bat coordinator Mary Bunch said biologists are worried the disease could cause the extinction of some species, “In places where they’ve had White Nose for several years, they’re seeing 90 percent decline, and up to 100 percent declines, in some of their caves,” she told South Carolina Radio Network.
Bunch had hoped South Carolina’s shorter, milder winter would keep the disease at bay in this state. She said the news was “devastating.”
Bunch said she was at Table Rock in mid-February doing routine monitoring for the disease when a naturalist told her about a dead bat found inside the park. The naturalist requested that the bat undergo testing. The tri-colored bat’s body was transported on ice, and submitted to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Ga. The Wildlife Disease Study confirmed the presence of Geomyces destructans.
There is no direct human threat from White Nose Syndrome, but Bunch says there are fears of an explosion in agricultural pests with fewer bats to eat them. “It’s hard to measure what all of the impacts will be,” she said, “That’s a hard to thing to measure and it’s going to take years to be able to detect it.”
Affected species include the Big Brown, Little Brown, Northern Long-Eared, Small-Footed, and Tri-Colored bats. There are other non-hibernating species that have not been reported to be suffering from the fungus, including Evening, Free-Tailed, Silver-Haired, and Tree bats.
She also warned there is currently no known way of stopping the disease. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been asking cavers to limit their activities and decontaminate their equipment since 2009. The agency says simply washing clothes will not kill the spores that carry the fungus.