Walland man involved in building artificial bat cave
By Joel Davis | (email@example.com)
A Walland resident is involved with efforts by the Nature Conservancy in Tennessee to build an artificial cave to help stem the white-nose syndrome (WNS) that is devastating bat populations in the U.S.
The organization began building the artificial cave in August near an existing bat hibernaculum in Montgomery County.
Alex Wyss, director of conservation programs for the Tennessee Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and a Walland resident, said the project came about from the need to do something to stem the tide of disease, caused by the spread of the fungus Geomyces destructans.
“This project rose out a sudden shock to us in 2010 when we confirmed the first case of WNS in Tennessee,” Wyss said. “... Logically, we knew it was just a matter of time before it came to the state, but we were still surprised. We were in denial that something so terrible could come here.”
WNS is a disease that is responsible for the deaths of millions of bats in eastern North America. It is named for a white fungus that forms on the faces of many infected bats.
Once WNS was confirmed, thought at the conservancy turned to what could be done to help. “We said let’s take this as a lesson learned, and think about what it is we could do to be more better prepared to give bats a fighting chance with white-nose syndrome five years from now.”
After consulting with many experts on bats, the conservancy settled on the strategy of creating a controlled environment where bats could be treated and assisted. The new structure, the first man-made hibernation cave for bats, is underground and will mimic the cold, damp environment of the nearby natural cave. It will offer a safe haven for bats to hibernate during winter. It will also be a test site for WNS treatments.
Several disinfectants can kill the fungus believed to cause WNS, but they can harm other cave-dwelling species and local water supplies. The artificial cave will not house other animals, and it can be disinfected when bats leave in summer, according to Wyss.
“If you could hold them during the winter when they are hibernating and treat the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome then release them back into the wild after spring ... that might work.”
Construction on the artificial cave is expected to be complete by the end of the month to allow bats to take up residence. It will cost about $300,000 and could be replicated elsewhere if proves successful.
“We’ve created the habitat and, hopefully, the plan is they’ll find it and use it on their own,” Wyss said. “We can also sterilize the cave environment so it carries a much lower fungal load.”
Bats are pest-controllers by eating many of the insects that damage crops. Studies have estimated the value of bats to Tennessee agriculture at $313 million annually and the value to the nation’s agriculture at $3.7 billion, according to the nature conservancy.
Wyss said he is very aware of the presence of Geomyces destructans in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which continues to enforce a moratorium on cave entries in hopes to preventing further spread.
“We’re still just continuing to close off the caves and are monitoring what is going on,” Park spokeswoman Molly Schroer said.In March, biologists confirmed that both a tricolored and a little brown bat found in a Park cave 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.
No known cure
While the actual cause of death due to WNS 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 11 bat species and 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 WNS.
In 2009, all 16 Park caves and two mining complexes were closed to public entry to delay the importation of the WNS 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 WNS 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.