Smokies visitors warned to avoid contact with bats
By Joel Davis | (email@example.com)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park authorities are reporting numerous reports of unusual winter bat activity and are warning visitors to avoid contact with the animals.
Normally, bats should be hibernating during the winter, but bats have been described as flying erratically during the day and diving down toward people. Park biologists do not know the exact cause of the behavior, but urge all visitors to exercise caution as bats are known to carry diseases such as rabies. Skin-to-skin contact should be avoided.
GSMNP Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver said there is a suspicion the behavior could be related to white-nose syndrome, which is responsible for the deaths of millions of bats in eastern North America, but that has not been confirmed.
“We don’t know for sure what is causing the bats to be out on the landscape,” he said. “We are scheduled to survey our caves in February. We are going to have a better idea then. Our biggest concern right now was to get information out to visitors at the park to avoid contact with bats.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the transmission of rabies virus can occur from minor, seemingly unimportant, or unrecognized bites from bats. For human safety, it is important not to touch or handle a bat. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends you seek immediate medical advice if you have had skin-to-skin exposure to a bat.“We don’t know if this is caused by rabies,” Stiver said. “We haven’t had an opportunity to test the bats, but we’ve had so many reports during the past month ... that there is potential for some kind of bat-human contact, If you are exposed to a bat bite, you need to talk to your physician, and they are probably going to recommend going through the rabies shots.”
11 bat species
The park is home to at least 11 species of bats that play a critical role in the health of ecosystems by consuming insects, including mosquitoes and agricultural insect pests. One of the species in the park, the Indiana bat, is federally endangered and another, the Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, is a state-listed species of concern in both Tennessee and North Carolina.
White-nose syndrome has been confirmed in the park. The syndrome is named for a white fungus that forms on the faces of many infected bats.
The park continues to enforce a moratorium on cave entries in hopes of preventing further spread of the Geomyces destructans fungus. In March, biologists confirmed that both a tricolored and a little brown bat found in a park cave had tested positive for the syndrome. Previously, no affected animals had been discovered despite finding evidence of the fungus that causes the syndrome in a park cave.
While the actual cause of death due to white-nose syndrome is unknown, the disease causes bats to become restless during hibernation, moving about the cave and burning up fat reserves or losing body water they need to survive the winter. There is no known cure for the disease.
The Great Smokies is home to the largest hibernating population of the endangered Indiana bat in Tennessee. At least six species that hibernate in park caves and mines are susceptible to white-nose syndrome.
In 2009, all 16 park caves and two mining complexes were closed to public entry to delay the importation of the pathogen on visitors’ clothing or gear. Park caves will continue to remain closed to human access to minimize the chances of spreading the disease to other areas.
Smokies officials have also documented the syndrome in the White Oak Blowhole cave. The fungus is believed to have originated in Europe where the native bats have apparently developed a resistance that their North American counterparts lack.