Bad Blood: This Halloween season, the Greenville Zoo is demystifying bats

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Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) flying. Photo Credit: iStock

Bats are among the most misunderstood animals on the planet, routinely feared and loathed as bloodsucking, disease-spreading denizens of the night.

In reality, however, the flying, nocturnal mammals provide invaluable services to both natural ecosystems and human economies around the world, according to Karen Love, education program coordinator at the Greenville Zoo.

Love and her colleagues at the Greenville Zoo plan to set the record straight about bats with a community workshop (What’s Up With Bats?) from 6-8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12.

The workshop, which costs $30 for members and $45 for nonmembers, is designed to educate residents about the types of bats that live in the Upstate, as well as “demystify” the lives of bats, Love said.

“Our community workshops are meant to connect the general public with the natural world, particularly outside of the zoo,” Love told the Greenville Journal. “We’ll be addressing the benefits of bats, myths about bats, and then also building bat boxes that families can take home to put in their yards.”

In total, 14 bat species can be found in South Carolina: big brown bats, little brown bats, northern long-eared bats, evening bats, eastern red bats, eastern small-footed bats, hoary bats, silver-haired bats, tricolored bats, Brazilian free-tailed bats, northern yellow bats, Rafinesque’s big-eared bats, southeastern bats, and seminole bats, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

While South Carolina bats are not pollinators — insects and small birds primarily perform this duty here — they are still a useful part of the ecosystem and economy, according to Love.

“Bats in South Carolina eat insects — and lots of them,” Love said. “As a matter of fact, due to their diet of nocturnal insects and pest species, SCDNR estimates that bats save South Carolina’s agricultural industry over $115 million each year on pest control alone. So in terms of numbers, they are incredibly valuable.”

Bats, however, face many challenges. That includes white nose syndrome, a fungal disease that targets hibernating bats in caves and abandoned mines.

Since 2006, when white nose syndrome was discovered in a New York cave, the disease has quickly spread and killed at least 5.7 million bats in 31 states and five Canadian provinces. Five bat species have tested positive for the disease in South Carolina.

In order to raise awareness, the Greenville Zoo plans to host a free “conservation lecture” about the disease at the The Children’s Museum of the Upstate in downtown Greenville.

The lecture, which is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, will feature Jennifer Kindel, an SCDNR wildlife biologist and white nose syndrome specialist based in Union, who will provide a brief review about what causes the disease, its origins, and current spread. She will also discuss current treatments, research, ongoing response plans, and developing partnerships that all work to help save South Carolina bats.

In an exclusive interview with the Greenville Journal, Kindel discussed the state of white nose syndrome in South Carolina, how the agency is combating the disease, and the effectiveness of its efforts.

The following transcript has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Greenville Journal: What is white nose syndrome, and how does it kill bats?

Jennifer Kindel: White nose syndrome is a devastating disease caused by a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans that infects the skin of bats while they’re hibernating. Bats don’t die from the infection, but from starvation or thirst. They use up their stored energy waking from hibernation to fight the fungus and can’t replenish their reserves during winter. Bat species in eastern North America have shown a 10-fold decrease in hibernating populations since WNS hit. An estimate from experts in 2011 put the number of bat deaths up to that point at between 5 million and 6 million.

Where did the fungus come from?

JK: Pd is thought to have been introduced to North America from Europe. Interestingly, bat species found with Pd in Europe and Asia don’t seem to be as affected as North American bats. The earliest known incidence of the fungus was recently found on a bat specimen from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., on a bat collected in France in 1918.

Does it affect all bats in North America?

JK: WNS only seems to affect many hibernating bat species, but over half of the 47 species in North America must hibernate to survive. There are other bat species in North America not considered true hibernators, like those known as tree bats. The eastern red bat, for example, roosts solitarily in trees and wraps itself in a furry tail membrane (called the uropatagium) like a warm blanket to help maintain its body temperature during winter. Though WNS does not seem to affect migratory tree bats, these species can be heavily impacted by wind energy development.

Where has white nose syndrome been found in South Carolina?

JK: Overall, 10 counties in S.C. are WNS-confirmed or -suspected. Current WNS-confirmed counties include Oconee, Pickens, and Richland. WNS-suspected counties (those where Pd has been found but no obvious visible signs of WNS were seen) include Cherokee, Greenville, Lancaster, Laurens, Spartanburg, Union, and York.

Could some bat species go extinct?

JK: With a rapid 10-fold decrease in hibernating populations, bat species affected by WNS could be at risk of extinction. Researchers have predicted potential regional extinctions of the little brown bat by 2026, and the 90 to 100 percent mortality rate in northern long-eared bats from WNS also does not bode well for their survival. But there are glimmers of hope: Some species have shown signs of behavioral adaptation, tolerance, and/or resistance to the disease. For example, remnant populations of little brown bats are managing to reproduce. However, with only 1 pup reared per year (many other species affected by WNS have similarly low birth rates), populations will remain precarious for some time.

Is there a cure for white nose syndrome?

JK: There is still no cure for WNS. However, ongoing research into various types of disease treatments have been underway, with exciting developments in the past few years. Biological treatments include those that slow the growth of Pd by stimulating the growth of native microorganisms, such as antifungal bacteria native to North American soil that slow the ripening of bananas and, it turns out, the growth of Pd.

What is SCDNR doing about this wildlife crisis?

JK: We survey caves and old mines every three to five years and send swab samples to NWHC [National Wildlife Health Center] for testing. SCDHEC [South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control] has been working with us to save rabies-negative bats they receive, which we then send to SCWDS [Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study] for testing. We are also conducting summer netting to find and help protect maternity colonies of the federally threatened northern long-eared bat, especially on the coast where this historically mountain-dwelling bat has recently been discovered.

How many caves and old mines has SCDNR surveyed so far?

JK: In just the past 3 years, 45 caves and old mines have been surveyed by SCDNR. South Carolina does not have many natural caves, so the majority of these hibernacula are old mines, railroad tunnels, or military bunkers. We are always looking for more hibernacula to survey.

Does SCDNR close caves and mines when the fungus that causes the disease is present?

JK: Most caves and mines used as hibernacula are not on SCDNR land, so we can only suggest to partners that they close the cave or mine when Pd is found there. With permission, SCDNR posts WNS signs stating the site is positive for the fungus that causes WNS, and that gear should be decontaminated since fungal spores can be spread by footwear and clothing. We also assist with logistics for installation of bat-friendly gates where possible. Currently, all caves and mines on land of the U.S. Forest Service’s southern region are closed until 2019 to help prevent the spread of WNS.

What can people do to help bats?

JK: While news of WNS can be overwhelming, there are many ways you can help bats. First, do no harm: Respect entry restrictions on National Forest land; avoid entering places where bats are hibernating in winter because disturbing them can cause them to wake and burn valuable fat stores; and please be careful with your caving gear and decontaminate after every visit to an open cave or mine. Second, provide bat habitat: Put up a bat box, or even better, support public lands and bat conservation organizations that provide habitat for bats as these species try to fight this disease. By protecting habitat and providing a combination of disease treatments in the future, we can give these bats a chance to respond and recover. Third, educate others: The more people know about this disease, about decontamination, and about the ecological and economic benefits of bats, the more we can work together to slow the spread of WNS and prevent the loss of these amazing creatures.

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For more information, visit www.greenvillezoo.com or www.dnr.sc.gov.

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