The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced the news Wednesday. White-nose was first detected in the state March 2 and confirmed in a lab days later. The disease has killed nearly 7 million bats in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It now threatens what Alabama wildlife biologist Keith Hudson called the Grand Central Station for the endangered gray bat and a half-dozen other species that dwell off and on in thousands of caves in the state.
“The largest winter cave is here. The largest summer cave is here. If white-nose syndrome impacts gray bats as it has done other cave dwelling bats, it will devastate the species,” said Hudson, who studies bats for the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
No Alabama bats have been found dead from the disease, which is linked to an aggressive fungus called Geomyces destructans, but that outcome is feared. “We are very concerned about white-nose syndrome and its impact on Alabama bats. We will do everything practical to manage this, with the understanding that not a whole lot can be done,” Hudson said.
In the Northeast, where the disease was first discovered at Howes Cave near Albany, N.Y., in 2006, the mortality rate from it has stood in some places at nearly 100 percent, causing officials to worry about whether the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tricolored bat will survive.
“Alabama marks the southernmost confirmation of the disease to date,” said Ann Froschauer, a national spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife’s efforts to stop white-nose. “We had it in North Carolina and Tennessee prior to this. The response community has been sort of hoping the disease wasn’t going to progress the same way into the southeast and western direction.”
Gray bats gather in huge concentrations, up to a million in a cave. Unlike most bats, they remain in caves through the year.
Development and other human activity greatly reduced their numbers, but recently the bat has made a comeback, Froschauer said, and there was talk of removing it from the endangered species list.
“If you can imagine the disease getting into a site with a half-million or a million bats, that would really be devastating,” she said. “The impact on our agricultural area ... may be ... exponential ... down the road, in terms of the economic services that these bats provide.”
Bats are a top nocturnal predator, eating night-flying insects that feed on agricultural crops. A pregnant female consumes her weight in bugs each night. A single colony of 150 brown bats can eat enough adult cucumber beetles to prevent the laying of eggs that would result in 33 million rootworm larvae, according to a study cited by Bat Conservation International.
Bats probably save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion each year, or approximately $74 per acre for the average farmer, according to studies.
Hudson said that although other biologists are surprised to see the disease in Alabama, he’s not.
“I think all of us thought it was just a matter of time before it got here,” Hudson said.
Source: Washington Post