So, if you read my profile, you know that I love National Parks. What I also love is that the parks are dedicated to research. Today I offer you a little info on a devastating disease wiping out bat populations worldwide, white-nose syndrome, and how the National Park System is working to manage the spread of this disease.
The research article I read about this is by K. Castle and P. Cryan. White-nose syndrome has killed large numbers of hibernating bats throughout the United States and Canada. This disease has actually become a recent issue, with the first observation of the disease occurring in 2006-2007.
White-nose syndrome is actually a species of cold-loving fungus, Geomyces destructans, that can grow around the ears, muzzles, and wing membranes of bats. This disease has been devastating to bats, especially species of insectivorous bats (ones that eat insects, which is a good thing). This fungus seems to thrive in the conditions found in caves. It still isn’t exactly clear how this disease causes death, but skin infection is where it starts. It appears that disease can be spread through physical contact between healthy and infected bats, and is spread from cave to cave through local movements and long-distance migration.
The National Park Service has about 4,000 caves in approximately 85 of the units that it administers. Over 40 species of bats can be found in the caves of the NPS. Caves are the primary features of several national parks, such as Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave. Given their main attractive and economic importance, caves can not be closed off full time to visitors in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading the fungus.
To assess the situation, the NPS actually has a management group composed of several different biologists that look int the impact white-nose syndrome might have in the parks. Thankfully, when this article was published, only two parks sites, Delaware Water Gap and Great Smoky Mountains, were the only two areas where white-nose syndrome had been found. The park system is assisting in research efforts, since much is still not known about the disease. The reduce the spread of the disease, the park service has invested in special bat-capturing equipment and washers and dryers to wash clothes of those that must enter the caves in an effort to help reduce the spread of disease.
Overall, several recommendations have been suggested to help with management of the disease:
1) Restrict access to caves where bats hibernate or give birth
2) In unaffected caves, make sure that nothing that might have been in an affected cave enters
3) Make sure is someone enters an affected cave, they are properly decontaminated
4) Approve requests to enter caves for scientific or educational purposes that are deemed absolutely necessary
5) Collect and test dead bats
6) Make sure anyone who handles bats use safe practices
7) Continue efforts in public awareness and education
I think it’s great that parks are putting so much effort into trying to understand this disease. Bats are important parts of ecosystems. Given that the parks are so closely associated to bats through their management of caves, I think it shows great responsibility that they are meeting this challenge even when it isn’t a large threat to their cave systems yet. You can read the whole article online if you would like (click here). The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has some great info online about white-nose syndrome you can read if you are interested in finding out more about this disease (click here).