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Fungus Could Wipe Out State's Largest Bat Colony

Hibernating Indiana bats, an already endangered species, show signs of "white-nose syndrome." (NPR)
Al Hicks
NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation
Hibernating Indiana bats, an already endangered species, show signs of "white-nose syndrome." (NPR)

A researcher in Georgia who has studied one of Alabama's biggest bat colonies says the colony could be all but wiped out within years by the deadly fungus that causes white-nose syndrome.

Chris Cornelison, a doctoral student at Kennesaw State University; Jamie Nobles, Ruffner Mountain's conservation director; and Dottie Brown of Ecological Solutions Inc. surveyed the colony at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve in Birmingham earlier this year. They counted more than 600 bats and believe more than 1,000 live there. But the numbers could drop by half by spring, and by 95 percent within a few years.

"White-nose syndrome is going to move through that population pretty severely," Cornelison says. "It would be my prediction that we'll continue to see declines until they probably hit about five percent of that historic population."

The bats roosting in Ruffner's old mine shafts are tricolored bats, named for fur that is dark at the base, lighter in the middle and yellow-brown at the tip. They are the smallest bats in Alabama, and until recently they were so common that there was little push for research in the state. That's according to Nick Sharp, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' lead bat biologist.

"The fact of the matter is, the species that are going extinct are the ones that get the money, that's the way things work," Sharp says. "We start studying them when they're in danger of going extinct."

The tricolored bats were Georgia's most abundant species, but Cornelison says white-nose syndrome wiped out 95 percent of their population within four years. The Ruffner bats are in "at least" year two, possibly year three of an outbreak, and he says the third and fourth years generally show greatest mortality.

Cathedral Caverns State Park, located about 75 miles north, probably used to have at least as many tricolored bats, but Sharp says "those have all but disappeared". Those caves also tested positive for the fungus.

Alabama caves that have tested positive for white-nose have all shown a 70-95 percent drop in observed tricolored bat populations within a few years of the arrival of the disease.

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