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Contact: Bob Miller, (865) 436-1207
Biologists at Great Smoky Mountains National Park have received confirmation that one Little Brown bat collected from its hibernating refuge in the Park's White Oak Blowhole cave tested positive for Geomyces destructans [the fungus and the presumptive causative agent of White Nose Syndrome (WNS)]. White Oak Blowhole cave contains the largest known Indiana bat hibernacula in Tennessee. The Indiana bat is a federally listed endangered species which has seen declines in the Northeastern U.S. due to WNS. White Nose Syndrome has killed in excess of 90% of the bats in many of the caves and mines in the Northeast, and is just now showing up in the Southeast.
The fungal infection of one of the two bats collected in the Park was confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI. In addition to confirming the fungal infection of the Little Brown bat, a common bat species, photographs taken of federally listed Indiana bats in the cave were found consistent with the early stages of WNS.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Wildlife Biologist, Bill Stiver said, "We closed all of the Park's 17 caves and two mine complexes to any public entry a year ago to prevent the possible importation of the WNS pathogen on visitor's clothing or gear, but scientists have confirmed that bat-to-bat transmission of the fungus occurs. We take this very seriously because national parks are often the primary refuge that endangered species can count on for protection."
Stiver emphasized that the Park's caves would remain closed and Rangers would increase their enforcement to reduce the likelihood that visitors might transport the WNS pathogen to uninfected colonies either in the Park or elsewhere. Violators face fines of up to six months in jail or $5,000.
White Nose Syndrome is named for the white fungus that forms on the faces of many infected bats. Mechanism(s) by which the fungus leads to death are under investigation. One possibility is that bats become restless during hibernation, moving about the cave and burning up fat reserves or losing body water they need to survive the winter.
"While a lot of people may misunderstand and even dislike bats," Stiver said, "they may be hugely important in controlling the population of many insect pests. We are very concerned about the potential decline of bats from both an ecological and human health standpoint."