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December 18, 2009

South Carolina bats may soon face killer fungus

White-nose syndrome, which has killed hundreds of thousands of bats from Vermont to Virginia, has not yet been detected in South Carolina, but wildlife biologists believe it is only a matter of time before the fungal scourge arrives in the Palmetto State.

White-nose syndrome (WNS) is now in southernmost Virginia and is expected to expand its swath of destruction in the major cave belts of Kentucky and Tennessee, according to Mary Bunch, S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist based in Clemson.

"Many of the bats found in Upstate South Carolina, such as little brown, big brown, small-footed, northern long-eared, pipistrelles, and Rafinesque’s big-eared bats, are the same species which are vulnerable to WNS," Bunch said. "It is likely that we’ll see WNS reach South Carolina’s bats. There’s no treatment or cure for WNS yet. Fortunately WNS does not appear to afflict tree roosting bats. The red bat is a common tree roosting bat in Upstate South Carolina."

Recommendations for managing white-nose syndrome during the winter of 2009-2010 call for closing human access to caves and mines with bats newly affected with WNS and limiting human access to unaffected caves and mines. The recommendations are intended to help slow the spread of WNS while scientists seek to understand the cause and find a way to stop the disease. WNS spreads from bat-to-bat, but scientists believe it is also spread by human activity.

First discovered in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, white-nose syndrome got its name from obvious white fungal growth on the faces of bats in their cave or mine hibernation sites. The fungus, Geomyces destructans, was not previously known to science. It prefers the cool temperatures typical of wintering sites (called hibernacula) for bats. Bats afflicted with WNS have fungus growing on their muzzles, ears and wing and tail membranes. In the summer, bats afflicted with WNS do not exhibit the white fungal growth, but they do have damaged wing and tail membranes, which may hamper flight, foraging, and temperature regulation.

Bats afflicted with WNS appear to starve to death. Estimates of bat mortality from WNS range from 500,000 to 1.5 million, and populations of the endangered Indiana bat in the Northeast region have declined 30 percent since 2007. WNS only affects bats; it has not been seen in other animals.
If anyone discovers large numbers of dead bats (not single bats), they are asked to report them to the nearest DNR office.

For more information on WNS, check the U.S. Geological Survey or the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

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