Alabama A&M Biologists Battle Bat Disease

When a team of surveyors from Alabama A&M University and the National Park Service, coordinated by the Alabama Bat Working Group, conducted a bat survey in Russell Cave on March 1, they saw numerous bats that displayed signs of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a disease that has killed millions of bats throughout eastern North America.

Dr. William E. Stone, Associate Professor AAMU Department of Biological Sciences

Dr. William E. Stone of AAMU’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences photographed the infected bats and collected tissue samples that were sent to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study unit for testing. Tests confirmed the presence of the deadly disease, thus linking Stone’s discovery in the Russell Cave Complex in Jackson County to the arrival of the disease in Alabama.

“White-nose syndrome had been confirmed in several counties in Tennessee, but had yet to be discovered in Alabama until this year,” admits Keith Hudson, a wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “This disease is likely one of the most significant disease threats to Alabama wildlife, due to its potential to affect multiple bat species and the devastating nature of the affliction.”

Bats infected with the White-Nose fungal disease.

Although scientists have yet to fully understand WNS, research has demonstrated the disease is caused by a newly discovered fungus, Geomyces destructans, which often grows into white tufts on the muzzles of infected bats, giving the disease its name, according to Stone. White-nose syndrome was first detected in New York state in 2006 and has killed more than 5.5 million cave-dwelling bats in eastern North America. Mortality rates of bats have reached almost 100 percent in multi-year infected caves, notes Dr. Stone. With the discovery of WNS in Alabama, a total of 17 states and four Canadian provinces have now been confirmed to have the disease among its bat population.

Wildlife biologist Hudson says a lot of research is being conducted on the fungus and the mechanism through which it affects the bats. Hudson says the final impact on the bats is one of virtual starvation. For example, explains Hudson, the fungus gets on the bats, irritates them in their hibernation cycle to the point of causing them to constantly wake up when they shouldn’t and then ultimately leading them to burn up all of their fat reserves.

“We have worked closely with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Alabama Bat Working Group to prepare for white-nose syndrome,” said Mike Armstrong, USFWS regional WNS coordinator. “Now that it is confirmed here, we will continue to work with the state in their research and management of the disease.” The Alabama Bat Working Group developed a plan in 2010 to guide the State’s response to the potential arrival of WNS. The Plan is available on the ABWG’s website http://alabamabatwg.wordpress.com/.

WNS is known to be transmitted primarily from bat to bat, but fungal spores may be inadvertently carried to caves by humans on clothing and caving gear. Cave visitors are encouraged to check with landowners before entering any caves or mines, and to follow U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decontamination protocols to reduce the risk of human assisted transport of fungal spores.

Each year hundreds visit Scottsboro’s Sauta Cave to witness the nightly emergence of the endangered Gray Bat. Dr. Stone says if the white-nose fungus persists without remedy, that spectacle may quickly become a thing of the past.

“This may be the last summer to really get a view of the 250,000 to 300,000 bats that fly out of Sauta Cave every summer evening,” Stone said regrettably.

“Evening Flight” – Sauta Cave bat emergence. (c) 2009 Nathan Williams

Stone adds bats are “an important part of our nation’s ecosystems, and provide significant pest control services to American farmers.” Insectivorous bats likely save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion each year, approximately $74 per acre for the average farmer, he says. Alabama is home to 15 species of bats, including federally listed endangered Gray and Indiana bats. Dr. Stone conducts research on these endangered bats at Alabama A&M University and admits he is sad to see the arrival of the deadly WNS disease. “We will continue to monitor the disease in our state and conduct research to lead to the recovery of these wildlife species,” Stone says.

For more information, contact Dr. Stone at (256) 372-4248 or at william.stone@aamu.edu.

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