A fatal bat disease, white-nose syndrome, has been found in a cave in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
A biologist and volunteers working within the park to survey resources collected two tricolored bats in a park cave on Lookout Mountain in Hamilton County, according to superintendent Cathy Cook. One of the two bats tested positive for white-nose syndrome, a disease that already has killed nearly 7 million bats -- nature's best bug controllers -- across the eastern United States.
In the caves on the grounds of the military park, officials are looking at "containment" measures, Cook said. The only known way to contain the spread of white-nose is to reduce the risk of human transport of the fungus by closing caves to nonessential access and requiring decontamination procedures of those entering caves.
Biologists in February 2010 confirmed the first Volunteer State cases of the bat fungus in middle and upper east Tennessee. In March, wildlife officials confirmed white-nose syndrome in Russell Cave near Bridgeport, Ala., about 29 miles west of Chattanooga.
The disease's quick spread from its first North American find in the Northeast in 2006 to now 19 states is raising national alarm. Bats eat hordes of insects, as many as 600 an hour, and provide an estimated $22 billion to $53 billion in pest-control services to American farmers every year, experts have said.
"Each new report of this disease's catastrophic march across the country reaffirms this is the worst wildlife epidemic in U.S. history and demands decisive action from our leaders in Washington," said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center petitioned the White House on April 11 to direct swifter and better-coordinated national action to address the spread of the disease.
In Northeastern states, where the bat disease has been present the longest, bat populations are down by more than 90 percent, she said.
Biologists believe white-nose syndrome was inadvertently introduced to North America from Europe by a cave visitor. The disease has been present in Europe for years but has not produced the widespread deaths there, according to scientists.
Caves at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park were closed by the National Park Service in 2009 as a precaution against human transport of the bat disease. The same year, the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Valley Authority and the state of Tennessee also closed all other caves on public lands in the Volunteer State in an attempt to slow the spread of the fungus.
But the disease also spreads from bat to bat, and bats migrate seasonally.
Researchers say putting fungicides in caves would be a danger to other cave creatures and ecology, so scientists say they do not yet have an effective treatment. The fungus that appears on the faces, ears, wings and feet of hibernating bats causes infected bats to lose weight. Hungry, the bats leave the cave early in search of food but, since the insects they normally eat are unavailable at that time, the bats find no food, biologists say.
"They literally starve to death," according to Cherokee National Forest wildlife biologist Laura Lewis.
There have been no reported human illnesses attributed to white nose syndrome, and there is no current evidence to suggest it is harmful to humans or other organisms, according to officials.
Steve Thomas, the regional National Park Service ecologist and biologist who surveyed the local caves, said he saw more than 300 bats in the Russell and Chickamauga park cave systems.
He cautioned members of the public that if they see sick or dead bats, or bats acting strangely, don't handle them. Instead notify park officials or state wildlife officials.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...