The Whiteoak Sink inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee has been shut down to prevent the spread of the white-nose syndrome (WNS) to the travelers who visit and also the bats that reside in the area. Hikers' movement within the area have also been known to disturb the bat hibernacula.

Scientists have reported a significant decline in the bat population of the Whiteoak Sink due to the disease. Bats are infected by a white fungal growth on their noses, tail membrane and wings, and with microorganisms that irritate their skin and cause them to wake from their hibernation. The bats' stored energy is depleted, and without any source of food during winter, they soon die.

Bats in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have also been reported to be infected with rabies before, officials said.

Travelers are unlikely to be susceptible to WNS because the fungus lives on cold-blooded animals, but they can inadvertently transmit the disease to bat populations. Travelers are also at risk in being infected with rabies.

Park Wildlife Scientist Bill Stiver said that the first strain of the disease in 2010 had devastating effects. He said that bat populations have already diminished by 80 percent.

"We are doing everything we can to both slow the spread of the disease and protect the remaining animals by closing caves and areas near caves to the public," he added.

Stiver also said that infected bats behave erratically, diving toward people and flopping around cave openings unsteadily.

Biologists plan to monitor the Whiteoak Sink throughout the winter to collect behavioral, ecological and population data that will help resource managers better understand the situation in long-term aspects. If the results show that the chances of survival of a number of bats increase, the plan may be extended until spring.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park shelters 11 species of bats, including the Indiana bat and Rafinesque's big-eared bat. The Indiana bat is federally endangered, while the Rafinesque is a species of concern in Tennessee and North Carolina. Bats maintain ecological balance as predators of moths, beetles, mosquitoes and other night-flying insects.

The Department of Health and Human Services meanwhile recommends that humans should not touch or handle bats that may possibly be infected with WNS or rabies. The transmission of the disease can occur in seemingly unimportant bites from bats. If any traveler experiences skin-to-skin contact with bats, immediate medical attention should be given.

Photo: Gilles San Martin | Flickr 

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