Arkansas Wildlife
6:47 pm
Mon July 29, 2013

Bat Disease Causing Fungus Found In State Park

Bat with White Nose Syndrome
Credit Microbe World / flickr.com

The latest discovery of a fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome in bats has some Arkansas wildlife officials worried about the potential harm to local bat populations.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission confirmed Monday that a sample of the fungus was found in a cave at Devil's Den State Park in Washington County, but officials say no bats in the area have shown symptoms of the disease. It's the second instance of the fungus showing up in Arkansas after samples were found at a privately owned cave in Baxter County.

Monte Fuller, superintendent at Devil's Den State Park, says the fungus is most active in the wintertime when bats try to hibernate. The syndrome irrritates the bats' mucus membranes and skin, causing them to leave their caves prematurely.

“They go out, since they're awake and deplete their fat reserves,” says Fuller. “They go out and try to feed in the wintertime when there's no insects or very few insects. By their flying around they continue to deplete their fat reserves and typically they'll die from that.”

Map showing instances of the WNS fungus since 2006
Credit whitenosesyndrome.org

Fuller notes that possible spread of the fungus could have dangerous consequences. “The mortality rate of this White Nose Syndrome disease is around the 95 to 98 percent range,” he says.

Blake Sasse, a non-game mammal biologist with the State Game and Fish Commission, says he and his colleagues will further their efforts to study the spread of the fungus in the coming months.

“We are planning to go and survey caves near these sites where we've found the fungus this winter to try to see how far it may have spread and to see if it has developed into actual White Nose Syndrome,” says Sasse.

Sasse notes there are about 8 species of bats in Arkansas that may be susceptible to the disease, including the endangered Big Brown Bat. Wildlife officials note that bats are beneficial because they eat insects that harm agricultural crops.

The fungus has been steadily spreading through the eastern half of the U.S. since 2006, when it was first discovered in New York. Arkansas closed all state-owned bat caves in 2009 and 2010 to prevent spread of the fungus by humans. White Nose Syndrome does not affect humans, however.