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Residents asked to help reduce spread of bat disease

ATLANTA -- The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that bats with white-nose syndrome were found recently at two caves in Dade County.

Though the deadly fungus, which has killed millions of bats in the eastern U.S., does not pose a threat to human health or other animals, they are appealing to Georgians to help reduce the spread of the disease among colonies of bats, some of which are endangered species.

The diseased bats were found in a Lookout Mountain Cave at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in late February. On March 5, a group led by a Georgia DNR biologist also found bats with visible symptoms in Sittons Cave in Cloudland Canyon State Park. The bats were sent to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, where it was confirmed that they had white-nosed syndrome.

"We've been expecting the discovery of WNS in Georgia after it was confirmed in Tennessee and Alabama last season," said Trina Morris, DNR wildlife biologist. "Bats are important because they control insect populations, and all 16 of our species eat only insects. Different species are found in different habitats, ranging from caves to trees to buildings. White-nose syndrome affects bats found in caves in the winter. Rockdale and Newton counties do not have any known caves with hibernating bat populations, so we would not expect to find it there."

The DNR is, however, warning recreational cavers, cave owners and conservation organizations about limiting trips into caves and following national decontamination protocols (whitenosesyndrome.org) for disinfecting clothes and gear.

"Spores may be carried cave-to-cave by people on clothing or gear," according to a printed press release. "Detected in New York in 2006, the disease has spread steadily to 22 states and five Canadian provinces. WNS has killed an estimated 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats and threatens endangered species such as Indiana and gray bats. In some caves and mines, 90 to 100 percent of the bats have died."

The DNR is urging cavers to reduce trips to Georgia caves. Sittons Cave, where diseased bats have already been found, is closed to the public to prevent disturbance of the hibernating bats. Similarly, the National Park Service closed all caves at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in 2009 in an attempt to reduce the chance of importation of the white-nose pathogen.

According to the press release, white-nose syndrome thrives in the cold, humid conditions characteristic of caves and mines used by bats. The fungus leads to bats being awakened too often from hibernation or less intense periods of torpor, causing them to use up fat reserves. The animals often starve to death, leaving caves in winter to search for insects that have not yet emerged. There is also evidence the fungus may cause some bats to die from dehydration or electrolyte imbalances.

There is no known cure.

The release goes on to explain that bats play a critical role in ecosystems, serving as a natural pest control that saves the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion per year and also helps limit insects that can spread disease to people. Many bat populations are already in decline because of habitat loss. Their ability to rebound is limited by reproduction rates as low as one offspring per year.

People are asked to contact a Wildlife Resources Division office (www.georgiawildlife.com) if they find dead bats or see bats flying outside during the day in winter months when they would usually be roosting or hibernating.

The public is cautioned against handling bats, which can carry other diseases such as rabies.