Bat-Killing Fungus Spreading Faster Than Expected, Could Affect Agriculture

A fungus that kills bats by the thousand is spreading faster than expected through Tennessee’s caves. White-nose syndrome first turned up a few years ago in a cave in New York, and has since rippled out from one cave to the next, wiping out millions of bats. And in this last few months it’s begun to show up in caves in Middle Tennessee.

The fungus spreads over cave-dwelling bats when they hibernate. It causes the bats to wake up more often, burning precious stores of fat. By late winter, with few insects around to feed on, the infected bats often die.

Cory Holliday, with the Nature Conservancy, says he expected white-nose to hit Tennessee. But with recent reports near Clarksville and the Cumberland Plateau, it’s spreading faster than researchers thought – too fast to track.

“We’re struggling to understand everything about it, struggling to get funding to do more research to understand it better, and it is moving very quickly throughout our cave-dwelling bats. We’re having a hard time keeping up with it.”

Tennessee has more than nine thousand caves, including a few that are home to populations of over 100 thousand endangered gray bats.

So far white-nose hasn’t been spotted in the caves where those gray bats hibernate. But Holliday says they may carry the fungus home after this summer, when the bats fan out to visit other caves, including some known to be infected.

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Bad News for Farmers

The fungus has wiped out millions of bats in New England and can devastate populations in just a few years’ time. And that’s bad news for farmers, who depend on the bats to keep many flying insects in check.

White-nose first showed up about four years ago in New York, and has quickly spread down the Appalachians from one cave to the next.

Cory Holliday with the Nature Conservancy says bats typically do farmers a service by eating whatever bugs they can find in the night air.

“Bats are the number-one predator of night-flying insects. You think about the night-flying insects we have in the southeast in Tennessee and it’s mosquitoes, it’s moths, beetles – things that can be large crop pests and agricultural pests.”

That means a hit to the bat population could mean a hit for farmers as well.

And Holliday says right now there’s no way to stem the spread of white-nose. Some researchers are looking into the use of fungicide, but Holliday says that’s not a practical option, because it would kill off too much other life in a cave.

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White-nose appears to be limited to cave-dwelling bats; species that live in wooded areas appear to be unaffected.

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