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Caving Put on Hold
In recent years, the danger of decreasing bat populations has taken a heavy toll on caving opportunities along the East Coast, and Georgia is no exception.
As surrounding states have discovered traces of a fatal fungus in bat communities, cavers all over the region have planned trips around cave closures and limitations. In 2009, researchers identified white-nose syndrome (WNS) on bats on the Tennessee side of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. The National Park Service decided to close all caves on this federal park to the public. Then in February 2013, bats with WNS were found at one of the park's caves in Georgia, and shortly after at a nearby cave on state lands in Dade County, the first confirmation of the disease in Georgia.
Georgia's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) considered closing the caves they either owned or maintained. However, instead of closing, they chose to recommend cavers limit their visits to public and private caves and follow the national protocol for disinfecting clothes and equipment.
Why have Closures and Limitations?
Bats are mainly exposed to this fungus by having contact with other infected bats, but experts also concluded that WNS spreads from cave to cave by spores on people’s clothing. Because of this, many of the caves in surrounding areas were closed to public access after the fungus spread in Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina (including those in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park). This is also why DNR highly recommends cavers limit their trips and follow necessary protocol to keep from spreading the fungus.
WNS is thought to have come to America from Europe, with the first sightings in 2006 in New York. Since then, 22 states and five Canadian provinces reported sightings of bats with this fungus.
WNS Exposure and Preventions
WNS itself does not kill the bats, but the results from having the fungus ultimately lead to death. The fuzzy white fungus grows on the noses, wings, ears and tails of hibernating bats, waking them too soon. The bats then use up their stored fat and cannot replenish it because their food is not yet out and about. There is no known cure yet for this fungus. So far, researchers have not yet found the fungus to be harmful for humans.
To prevent this fungus from spreading any further, cavers should wash their clothes in extremely high temperatures or use chemical treatment. Above all else, it is best to avoid contact with the bats.
About the Author
Bethany McDaniel is a content specialist for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, GA with degrees in Visual Communication and History.