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Fungal Disease Still Decimating Georgia’s Bat Population

A tri-colored bat with white-nose syndrome squeals after being woken from hibernation at Black Diamond Tunnel in Clayton, Georgia. Since the bat-killing fungus arrived in Georgia two years ago, state counts are down more than 80 percent.
A tri-colored bat with white-nose syndrome squeals after being woken from hibernation at Black Diamond Tunnel in Clayton, Georgia. Since the bat-killing fungus arrived in Georgia two years ago, state counts are down more than 80 percent.
Credit Dan Raby / WABE

As heard on the radio

Georgia’s bats suffered another devastating winter, their numbers further ravaged by a fungus that’s so far killed nearly 6 million bats in 26 states since it first arrived in the U.S. nine years ago.

That assessment comes from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which released its annual bat population surveys this week.

White-nose syndrome, the bat-killing disease named for the white fungus that grows on the bats’ faces and wings, first appeared in the U.S. in 2006 but didn’t show up in Georgia until 2013. In that short amount of time, though, the disease has hit the state hard. Since it was first reported here, the DNR says bat counts are down 82 percent from pre-white-nose numbers. 

At Black Diamond Tunnel in Clayton, the largest known winter shelter for some of the state’s 16 bat species, nearly 90 percent of the bats that hibernate there are now dead just two winters after the fungus was first found in the cave.

Katrina Morris, a wildlife biologist at the state DNR, said the numbers at Black Diamond Tunnel aren’t unique.

“We knew that some of the bat numbers would be down. We sort of hoped this year it wouldn’t be as extreme,” Morris said.

At Sitton’s Cave in Cloudland Canyon State Park, the first Georgia cave where white-nose syndrome was reported, 94 percent of the bats are gone. At Ellison’s Cave in Walker County, less than a fifth survive. The DNR has found the disease in every one of the dozen or so north Georgia sites it checks, and the results are the same.

“In some of the sites that we went to it was just that we didn’t see the bats. They were gone. I would say that’s what we see most of the time,” Morris said. “But in some sites we did see a lot of dead bats.”

Morris said the state has no way to get an accurate picture of the disease’s true toll, as there are many sites DNR can’t reach. The state has around 600 caves, tunnels and mines that could be home to bats, but only 20 are accessible. Still, she says DNR’s sample likely reflects what’s going on in the vast majority of north Georgia caves.

There are glimmers of hope for bats, including one study at Georgia State University that’s shown promise in fighting the fungus. But for a lot of Georgia’s bats, time has run out.