Mike Groll/AP

Georgia May Close Caves to Save the Bats

April 01, 2009 01:59 PM
by Rachel Balik
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has advised Georgia to close its caves to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome, which is killing bats in eight states.

White-Nose Disease Threatens Georgia’s Bats

White-nose syndrome was discovered in 2006; since then, it has severely reduced northeastern bat populations. The disease is named for the white fungus that frequently appears on the muzzles of infected bats.

Georgia is home to 16 species of bats, all of which would be at risk if the disease spread. In a statement reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that although they don’t know how the disease is spread there is a good chance that it can be spread by humans. In that case, closing Georgia’s 600 caves might stop or at least slow the transmission of the disease.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has a page for hikers and cavers that lists recommended procedures to follow to help curb the spread of white-nose syndrome. Of course, the page advises obeying all rules about cave closing, but also describes “containment and decontamination procedures” for humans who might be transmitting the disease via their clothing or gear. The agency believes that any item worn in a cave in New York, Vermont, Connecticut or Massachusetts in the past two years may be carrying the disease.

Background: Discovering and beating white-nose disease

Bats with white-nose syndrome have little or no body fat; they die of starvation. A Nature Conservancy feature, “In the Dark,” describes the investigation of one infected bat population in a cave in New England. The information collected by researchers there could help scientists learn more about causes and cures for the disease. One thing is certain, and that is the situation is dire. After the disease was first discovered in New York, the state lost 80–90 percent of its bat population. So far, tens of thousands of bats have died in the Northeast.

Other methods are being tested to save the bats, such as heated boxes in caves. Since low body fat is causing bats to die of the cold during hibernation, two researchers believe that heated boxes might enable the animals to survive the season. The heated boxes will be tested in Canada this year. The heated boxes do not address the actual spread of the disease, or make any attempt to discover what it is, however.

Saving bat populations is an urgent matter, as bats contribute to the ecosystem in many ways. They eat insects, spread seeds and pollinate crops.

Reference: Georgia's caves

The Georgia Speleological Survey has information about caving in Georgia, which attracts many hikers and explorers. News and research about caves and rock climbing are available here.

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