Cavers asked to take precautions to prevent disease affecting bats from moving into Florida
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Media contact: Diane Hirth, 850-410-5291
A disease which has killed more than 5 million bats in the eastern United States recently was documented in north Georgia for the first time, increasing the level of threat to Florida bats.
People who explore or do research in caves are being asked by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to take precautions to prevent the disease, which has devastated bat colonies in other states, from moving into Florida.
The disease that is deadly to bats, known as white-nose syndrome (WNS), has not been detected in Florida. But WNS can spread by spores found on the clothing and equipment of people moving between caves, as well as by bat-to-bat contact, according to FWC biologists.
No human illnesses have been attributed to WNS. Nevertheless, biologists warn the public not to handle sick, injured or dead bats.
Also, no one should enter Florida caves with equipment or clothing that has been used in caves in WNS-infected states. If equipment or clothing has been used outside Florida, it should be decontaminated following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protocols described at WhitenoseSyndrome.org, where you click on “WNS Info,” then select “Decon.” Landowners with caves on their property can help by requiring that anyone entering their caves use only Florida-specific gear or decontaminated equipment.
Florida has 13 native bat species that play a major role in reducing agricultural pests and controlling mosquitoes, which can carry human disease. The value of insect suppression by bats to U.S. agriculture has been estimated at between $4 billion and $50 billion a year.
In 2006, bats with an unknown fungus on their noses and wings were first found in a New York cave. Researchers identified the fungus as Geomyces destructans, which thrives in cold caves with temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. FWC biologists do not know whether Florida’s warm temperatures and short winters will protect the state’s bats from white-nose syndrome. But they are certain that limiting the bats’ exposure to the white fungus is an important method of prevention.
“The tricolored bat, gray bat and a bat called southeastern myotis all roost in Florida caves,” said Melissa Tucker, FWC wildlife biologist. “These caves are also important summertime maternity roosts for southeastern myotis and some gray bats.”
Since its discovery, WNS has been identified in 22 states and five Canadian provinces and found in all states adjacent to Florida. The name comes from the white fungus found covering the muzzles and wings of hibernating bats. WNS appears to have the most severe impact on bats during their long winter hibernation period, although research is ongoing to find out exactly how hibernation and WNS are related.
“In Florida, bats typically spend very little time hibernating but we have discovered several Florida caves cold enough during the winter months to support growth of the fungus,” Tucker said.
Bats affected by WNS do not always display the typical white fungus appearance. Instead, they may appear emaciated or severely dehydrated. Other signs of WNS include bats flying outside or near cave openings during the day, and dead or dying bats on the ground, usually in the winter. People can report dead bats or bats behaving unusually by going to MyFWC.com/WildlifeHabitats and selecting “Health & Disease.”
“Florida bat populations face other risks in addition to WNS,” Tucker said. “Loss of habitat has limited bat roosting and foraging sites. Bats also are particularly vulnerable during their maternity season, when they are giving birth and rearing young.”
To protect bats during maternity season, do not disturb their colonies from April 15 through Aug. 15. Cavers should avoid known bat caves during this period, and if they unexpectedly encounter bats, they should leave that area of a cave.
For additional WNS information, go to www.whitenosesyndrome.org.