SOCIAL CIRCLE, GA- State wildlife biologists Trina Morris and Nikki Castleberry are a quarter-mile beneath untold tons of rock, smeared with gray mud and chilled to the bone from spending hours thigh-deep in a subterranean mountain stream. Welcome to Georgia's frontline against white-nose syndrome, where the work is sometimes miserable but ever vital.
The good news? "We haven't found bats in Georgia that look like they're impacted by white-nose," Morris says.
The bad: They won't be surprised if they do. The disease that has killed an estimated 5.7 million to 6.7 million cave-dwelling bats from New England to the Midwest and Canada, wiping out some hibernacula or overwintering sites of these airborne insect terminators, has been documented in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Morris and Castleberry, both of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Nongame Conservation Section, completed winter checks for white-nose with a recent trek deep into Sitton's Cave on Cloudland Canyon State Park near Rising Fawn. Helped by veteran caver Jerry Wallace, Morris and Castleberry counted 1,740 bats and swabbed samples from 20. They found none of the tell-tale signs: white, mold-like fuzz on the muzzle and wings, and ragged wing membranes.
Most of the bats in Sitton's were tri-colored bats, clinging no bigger than a hen's egg to the dimpled cave roof, jagged cracks and fantastical formations called draperies that droop shimmering folds of rock from the ceiling. The group also found federally endangered gray bats and a few big brown bats.
Castleberry took the samples by rubbing long-handled cotton swabs on the bats' muzzles and forearms, and on the rock beneath each bat. All will be analyzed as part of a national white-nose research project. The samples will be tested later to confirm the fungus is absent from the site.
With funding from the federal State Wildlife Grants program, DNR has increased surveys to better assess bat populations, while also checking three bat-rich caves once each winter and following up on reports of suspicious bats from cavers and caving clubs. Geomyces destructans, the fungus that causes white-nose, thrives in cold, humid conditions. It takes its toll in winter, awakening bats from hibernation or less intense torpor for futile feeding trips that burn fat reserves, leading to death by starvation and cold.
Bat-to-bat contact is likely the most common way that white-nose spreads. Affected sites generally track migration routes. While Georgia has no extremely large hibernacula, the state has mostly tri-colored bats, plus "a handful of gray bats using our habitat," Castleberry says. Both cave-dwelling species have tested positive for white-nose in other states.
Aware that the fungus can also be transmitted by people - including on their gear - Castleberry, Morris and Walker carefully follow decontamination protocols after leaving Sitton's. The state's white-nose response plan encourages disinfecting between sites and limiting trips into caves, particularly in winter.
White-nose is not considered a threat to people, livestock or pets. But state and federal white-nose response efforts stress raising awareness of how people might accidentally spread the disease.
Sitton's was the last cave check this winter. Morris and Castleberry found more bats than expected; the total bumped the popular state park cave to second on the list of those monitored.
But the lack of white-nose doesn't mean Sitton's, or the state, is out of the woods. DNR biologists will be underground again next winter, searching, sometimes miserable, ever hopeful they don't find what they're looking for.
Georgians can help conserve bats and other animals not hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as native plants and habitats, through donating to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund state income tax checkoff. Fill in any amount more than $1 on line 26 of the long state income tax form (Form 500) or line 10 of the short form (Form 500-EZ). Contributions can be deducted from refunds or added to payments.
Also support wildlife conservation in Georgia by purchasing or renewing a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird license plate. These license plates and the Wildlife Conservation Fund income tax checkoff are vital to the DNR's Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds.
Visit www.georgiawildlife.com for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).
ON THE WEB
§ White-nose, www.georgiawildlife.com/WNSFAQ or www.fws.gov/WhiteNoseSyndrome
§ Decontamination protocols, http://www.fws.gov/WhiteNoseSyndrome/cavers.html
§ Reporting bats or signs of white-nose syndrome, www.georgiawildlife.com/WNSMonitoring