Arkansas has become the 23rd state to confirm the presence among bats of White-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease.
This confirmation means that the disease, which has wiped out millions of bats in northern states since its discovery in 2006, continues to progress southward. The loss of the bats, which eat insects, including agricultural pests, is negatively affecting ecosystems across the eastern half of the US.
In Arkansas, Game and Fish Commission workers documented the disease in two northern long-eared bats found in a cave managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in Marion County.
The fungus is spread primarily from bat to bat or can be carried in advertantly through caves by humans on clothing, boots and equipment. It is not known to pose a threat to human health, or to pets and livestock, according to game officials.
According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission:
“A total of five dead bats were found during a Jan. 11 survey of the Marion County cave. Two of the bats were collected and submitted to the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center where it was confirmed both bats had the fungus. Both bats had damage to wing, ear and tail membranes consistent with white-nose syndrome.
“Researchers returned to the cave a week after their initial survey and found 116 endangered Ozark big-eared bats, 15 northern long-eared bats and 30 tricolored bats in the cave. No visible signs of WNS were seen on these bats. WNS is known to impact both northern long-eared bats and tricolored bats, but has not yet been known to harm Ozark big-eared bats. During the winter of 2012-13 an estimated 220 Ozark big-eared bats hibernated in Arkansas caves.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in the fall of 2013 that the northern long-eared bats — which are affected by WNS — be declared an endangered species and receive federal protection. Arkansas already classes the bat as endangered.
Last summer, officials detected a “low level of the fungus” that causes white-nose syndrome in a cave at Devil's Den State Park in Washington County and a private cave located in southern Baxter County.
The fungus also was found in swab samples taken in Arkansas from hibernating bats in February 2012 and January 2013, according to the AFGS, which was participating in a study funded by the National Science Foundation to track the disease.
"After finding out that the fungus was present Arkansas last year, it wasn't a surprise to confirm that white-nose syndrome was killing bats this winter," said Blake Sasse, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Nongame Mammal Program Leader.
In March 2010, the Arkansas commission closed all caves on AGFC land and Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission natural areas/wildlife management areas to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome.
The AGFC encourages owners of caves on private lands to also close their caves to public access in order to protect bats.
The agency also urges cave explorers to check with land owners and property managers before visiting any cave and to decontaminate clothing, footwear and equipment before and after cave visits.
Cave explorers can find more information about WNS decontamination protocols at WhiteNoseSyndrome.org.
People should watch for unusual behavior among bats during the winter months. Sickened bats have been known to fly around outside during the day and cluster near the entrances of caves and mines where they hibernate.
Experts estimate that bat populations have declined by 80 to nearly 100 percent in the regions most affected by the epidemic.
People can help the bats by building bat houses on their property to provide shelter for bats seeking cover. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has posted some ideas for bat abodes on its website.
Learn more at WhiteNoseSyndrome.org.