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January 4, 2011

White-nose syndrome continues to decimate bat populations

While scientists still aren’t sure how the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome kills bats, the affliction has killed more than a million bats from Vermont to Virginia.

White-nose syndrome 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) has spread to 11 or more states in less than four years since its discovery near Albany, N.Y. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in collaboration with other federal and state agencies, such as the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is proposing a coordinated national management plan to address this critical environmental issue.

The proposed plan, a joint federal-state effort, provides a framework for WNS investigation and response. A subsequent implementation plan will identify specific actions, the entities responsible for implementation of each action, and estimated costs.

"More than 50 agencies, organizations and individuals are working in concert on the white-nose syndrome response," said Mary Bunch, DNR wildlife biologist based in Clemson. "The national management plan will help guide our use of limited resources wisely and efficiently in addressing this urgent threat to bats and to our environment."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will accept public comments on the proposed plan through Dec. 26 to gather additional scientific and commercial information for consideration before the plan becomes final. The document and additional information about WNS is available online.

"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 vulnerable to white-nose syndrome," said Bunch. "It is likely that we’ll see WNS reach South Carolina’s bats. There’s no treatment or cure for WNS yet."

Recommendations for managing white-nose syndrome 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. If anyone discovers bats dying in large numbers (not single bats) in the late winter or early spring, they are asked to report them to the nearest DNR office.

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