A popular cave in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the United States will be closed in order to protect endangered bats from a rapidly spreading fungal infection that has already wiped out bat populations across the United States. The Whiteoak Sink area is now scheduled to be closed to visitors from now through the end of March in 2016.
Park officials are hoping to protect the bats that hunker down in the sink area through the winter by limiting human interaction with the bats. With some populations of bats in Smoky mountain caves being all but wiped out, officials are moving quickly to try to avert a crisis. Experts believe that human visitors could accidentally be carrying the fungus into camps, and they are now taking steps to protect the cave’s bat population, as well as the tourists who may be attacked by the bats.
The bats are being infected with a fungal infection that can cause skin irritation called white-nose syndrome. The so called ‘white-nose syndrome’ has killed millions of bats since 2007-2008, wiping out massive numbers of the animals across North America. It is believed that as many as 80 percent of the bats in the Northeastern United States have died because of the fungus, which prefers cold weather.
Since the fungus spreads during the winter, most bats are deep in hibernation when they are infected. Once bats are infected, the skin irritation can cause them to wake during hibernation in the winter, and once woken most of the bats will not be able to fall back asleep. Like most animals that hibernate, bats skip the winter months due to a lack of food. Since most insects die off or hibernate themselves during the winter, bats that are woken are deprived of their primary food source. Any bats active during the winter face the prospect of starving to death long before spring comes.
White-nose syndrome has emerged as a major threat for bat populations across the world, and there are reasons to believe that the disease is being spread by humans. It is believed that the fungus could be hitching a ride on hikers, their clothing, and their gear as they move from cave to cave.
As bat populations are affected, local ecosystems are also affected. Bats kill off huge numbers of insects and help keep the pests in control. Bugs are a nuisance for most people but for some people, such as farmers, they can cause billions of dollars in crop damage.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has advised that cave exploring be stopped in most of the eastern states in the country. In doing so, officials hope to slow the spread of the disease. As the fungus has spread southwards, officials have grown even more concerned. Bat populations in the south tend to be bigger, and bats often congregate in huge colonies, which would be prime targets for the rapid spread of the disease.
If you are going to enter a cave, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service advises people to decontaminate their clothing, and equipment after each use. Doing so could help prevent the spread of the fungus from cave to cave.