A disease that has killed over 6 million bats nationwide was discovered in the Upstate mountains of South Carolina for the first time last year. Now, South Carolina wildlife officials say it has spread to the Midlands.
The state Department of Natural Resources said Monday that white-nose syndrome has been discovered in a bat for the first time in Richland County this spring.
“We don’t know if that was a bat that migrated down or if it’s a bat that was overwintering in Richland County,” the agency’s bat coordinator Mary Bunch told South Carolina Radio Network. The syndrome is caused by a white 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. It spreads by microscopic spores that stick in the bats’ fur.
In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the disease had been detected in 16 states. Just two years later it has now infected bats in at least 25 states, according to DNR.
“It’s terrible news,” Bunch said. “We’re talking over 90 percent mortality in the Northeast in some species. At some sites, it’s 98 percent mortality. That’s catastrophic.”
The disease does not appear to affect those bats that do not hibernate.
In South Carolina, Bunch and other biologists discovered the first South Carolina case at a cave near Table Rock State Park last year. Bunch said another infection was also discovered at a closed-off tunnel on Stumphouse Mountain near Walhalla this spring. And it appears to already be making an impact in the tri-colored bat population there. DNR says 403 bats were counted at the Stumphouse Mountain site in 2012. This year, there were only 119 bats — a 70 percent reduction.
But biologists had not expected the fungus to appear as far south as the Midlands this year. Bunch said scientists had hoped the warmer Southern weather and shorter bat hibernation cycles would limit its deadliness among Palmetto State populations.
“But we really don’t know what will happen,” she said. “The disease is moving much faster than the knowledge of how it’s going to affect our bats.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said it does not know how to stop the disease. But officials are asking cavers to limit their activities and decontaminate their equipment any time they visit a cave. The agency says simply washing clothes will not kill the spores that carry the fungus.