February 29, 2012
State wildlife biologists Trina Morris and Nikki Castleberry
are a quarter-mile beneath untold tons of rock, smeared with gray
mud and chilled to the bone from spending hours thigh-deep in a
subterranean mountain stream. Welcome to Georgia’s frontline
against white-nose syndrome, where the work is sometimes miserable
but ever vital.
The good news? “We haven’t found bats in Georgia that look like
they’re impacted by white-nose,” Morris says.
The bad: They won’t be surprised if they do. The disease that has
killed an estimated 5.7 million to 6.7 million cave-dwelling bats
from New England to the Midwest and Canada, wiping out some
hibernacula or overwintering sites of these airborne insect
terminators, has been documented in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Morris and Castleberry, both of the Georgia Department of Natural
Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section, completed winter checks
for white-nose with a recent trek deep into Sitton’s Cave on
Cloudland Canyon State Park near Rising Fawn. Helped by veteran
caver Jerry Wallace, Morris and Castleberry counted 1,740 bats and
swabbed samples from 20. They found none of the tell-tale signs:
white, mold-like fuzz on the muzzle and wings, and ragged wing
Most of the bats in Sitton’s were tri-colored bats, clinging no
bigger than a hen’s egg to the dimpled cave roof, jagged cracks
and fantastical formations called draperies that droop shimmering
folds of rock from the ceiling. The group also found federally
endangered gray bats and a few big brown bats.
Castleberry took the samples by rubbing long-handled cotton swabs
on the bats’ muzzles and forearms, and on the rock beneath each
bat. All will be analyzed as part of a national white-nose
research project. The samples will be tested later to confirm the
fungus is absent from the site.
With funding from the federal State Wildlife Grants program, DNR
has increased surveys to better assess bat populations, while also
checking three bat-rich caves once each winter and following up on
reports of suspicious bats from cavers and caving clubs. Geomyces
destructans, the fungus that causes white-nose, thrives in cold,
humid conditions. It takes its toll in winter, awakening bats from
hibernation or less intense torpor for futile feeding trips that
burn fat reserves, leading to death by starvation and cold.
Bat-to-bat contact is likely the most common way that white-nose
spreads. Affected sites generally track migration routes. While
Georgia has no extremely large hibernacula, the state has mostly
tri-colored bats, plus “a handful of gray bats using our habitat,”
Castleberry says. Both cave-dwelling species have tested positive
for white-nose in other states.
Aware that the fungus can also be transmitted by people –
including on their gear – Castleberry, Morris and Walker carefully
follow decontamination protocols after leaving Sitton’s. The
state’s white-nose response plan encourages disinfecting between
sites and limiting trips into caves, particularly in winter.
White-nose is not considered a threat to people, livestock or
pets. But state and federal white-nose response efforts stress
raising awareness of how people might accidentally spread the
Sitton’s was the last cave check this winter. Morris and
Castleberry found more bats than expected; the total bumped the
popular state park cave to second on the list of those monitored.
But the lack of white-nose doesn’t mean Sitton’s, or the state, is
out of the woods. DNR biologists will be underground again next
winter, searching, sometimes miserable, ever hopeful they don’t
find what they’re looking for.