South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources is testing bat populations throughout the Midlands and Upstate to try to track the spread of a disease that’s killing the animals.
White nose syndrome has been found in 31 states since 2013 and the disease or fungus which causes it has been reported in seven South Carolina counties.
“It’s hard to know exactly how some of these populations are being hit because some of them have disappeared,” DNR Wildlife Biologist Jennifer Kindel said. “Like the long-eared bat, we haven’t been able to find in the Upstate any longer. We do know that species is hit hardest by white nose, with up to 98% mortality.”
Kindel is a specialist in white nose syndrome. She said the fungal disease affects the skin of bats while the hibernate, causing them to wake too early and burn energy that was supposed to be stored for the entire winter. Since the mammals normally lack food to eat during winter months, they can end up starving or dying from thirst.”
The fungus is transmitted from bat to bat and distributed throughout the environment via spores. Humans can carry the spores on their clothing into caves across the Southeast.
“Other species we’re able to survey, but we’re watching the declines, currently are tri-colored bats,” she said.
The fungal spores came to the U.S. from Europe around 2006, but Kindel said bats there have been surviving for some time. The disease has killed more than six million bats since the first case was discovered in New York in 2009, according to DNR.
“These spores are really difficult to destroy which is why it’s been so difficult to find a cure for this disease because the spores are really tough,” she said. “So if you’re able to spray, for example, some sort of chemical on them in the cave, you might also end up killing other organisms that live in that cave.”
Kindel said DNR wants to test this year in Abbeville, Anderson, Calhoun, Cherokee, Chester, Chesterfield, Fairfield, Greenwood, Kershaw, Lexington, Newberry, Richland, Spartanburg, Sumter and York Counties.
“We’re looking for people who have caves and mines that would be willing to have them tested for white nose syndrome,” she said. “Specifically, in some of the counties surrounding the ones that are already positive or suspect so that we can track the disease as it spreads.”
DNR has been mapping the spread of the disease since its first South Carolina discovery in Pickens County four years ago. White nose syndrome has been confirmed in Pickens, Oconee and Richland counties so far. In addition, Greenville, Union, Lancaster and Laurens counties were determined to be suspect for the syndrome in 2017, meaning the fungus that causes the disease was present, but no clinical signs of the disease were observed on bats.
The agency is working with the National Wildlife Health Center on the testing. Kindel said right now, there is no way to stop the disease in the field.
South Carolina is home to 14 different species of bats, but not all hibernate. Six of the hibernating species could be affected by the syndrome.
“Bats get a bad rap but they’re pretty fascinating,” Kindel said. “We depend on bats to control insect populations. They save the agriculture industry an average of about $23 billion across the United States.”
A 2011 study concluded bats saved South Carolina farmers $115 million in pest suppression services by eating moths, beetles and mosquitoes.
If you would like your bat cave tested for white nose syndrome, contact the SCDNR or email Kindel at Kindelj@dnr.sc.gov.