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September 10, 2009

Trouble is on the horizon for bats in South Carolina

White nose syndrome, a wildlife crisis of unprecedented proportions, has killed hundreds of thousands of bats from Vermont to Virginia and appears to be heading south and west.

First discovered in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, white nose syndrome (WNS) 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 that may hamper flight, foraging, and temperature regulation. Afflicted bats appear to starve to death.

Estimates of bat mortality from WNS range from 500,000 to 1.5 million. WNS only affects bats; it has not been seen in other animals.

Now WNS is 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 that 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."

If anyone discovers large numbers of dead bats (not single bats), they are asked to report them to the nearest DNR office.

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