A worrying decline in population has led officials to deem one area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed for the conservation of bats, in order to help halt the tremendous decrease due to both disease and average visitors hiking through caves.
It has been considered a highly important issue within the last five years, after wildlife official, Bill Stiver, confirmed the presence of white-nose syndrome (WNS) within the Whiteoak Sink area, now closed to the public. It’s a fungal infection attacking cold blooded animals, and presents itself with white growth on their nose, wings and tail.
The infection affects the skin tissue of the bats, causing irritation and disturbing their hibernation sleep during the winter, which it’s vital for them to pass through without interruption. One single bat can eat between 3,000 and 6,000 insects per night, but that crucial food source is not present within the cold months of winter.
Without any means to feed themselves, the awakened bats soon perish, which makes it all the more imperative that they survive their hibernation period sleeping. However, both WNS and hikers disturbing their slumber in caves had caused a 80% decline in their population since 2010.
The devastating impact has led wildlife officials and park biologist to close down 16 caves and two mines to the public in 2009, in order to make sure that the bats could proceed through their natural stage in their life without being disturbed. Furthermore, it’s a preventive measure to make sure that humans will not be spreading the disease from one cave to another.
It has not been deemed as a dangerous disease to visitors, but it’s reportedly transmitted through a bite, which holds the risk of rabies in itself. That should be enough of a warning for the population to cease their interaction or contact with bats, so they can both save themselves the risk of the disease and spreading it further to other bats.
The fungal infection can cause erratic behavior in the mammals, haphazard flying even during the day or winter, including diving down toward people.
There are 11 species currently roaming around the caves and grounds of the National Park, including the endangered Indiana bat and the Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, which is also on the list of species currently under the worries of Tennessee and North Carolina for their drop in population.
The Whiteoak Sink area, which is often accessible to hikers through the Schoolhouse Gap and Turkeypen Ridge Trail, between Townsend and Cades Cove, will be closed from September to March 31st, 2016.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that humans should not come into contact with the bats, in order to both protect the winged animals and themselves from potential diseases.
Image source: applcc.org