A team of biologists from state and federal agencies will explore caves in Bankhead National Forest to evaluate the health of bats living in the caverns.
The Bankhead National Forest bat study in Lawrence and Winston counties is part of a nationwide effort to monitor bats, which are being threatened by a deadly fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome. The disease can cause bats to die near the end of their winter hibernation.
During the coming weeks, biologists will explore caves throughout north Alabama where bats commonly hibernate during the winter.
Among the scientists participating in the study is Keith Hudson, a wildlife biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Hudson, who lives in Florence, said he remains hopeful no sick bats will be found, but added he worries the first documented case of white-nose syndrome in Alabama will be found.
The disease, which has killed more than a million bats in the United States and Canada since it was discovered in the New York during the winter of 2006-07, has been found as far south as southwestern North Carolina, according to Hudson.
“We’re hoping white-nose syndrome will never make its way into Alabama, because if it does it will devastate our bat population,” Hudson said. “In a lot of the caves where the bats have been infected, 90 to 100 percent of the bats have died.”
Many rare bats, including the gray bat, live in north Alabama. Several caves in the Shoals are used by gray bats.
Ann Froschauer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said a sharp decline in the bat population would allow many insects to proliferate.
“Bats are the number one predator of night-flying insects,” Froschauer said. “Many of the beetles and moths that bats feed on are pests for farm crops and forests. If we lose our bats, farmers and foresters are going to have a more difficult time controlling insects pests.”
Froschauer said people who explore caves can help prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome by decontaminating their clothing and equipment after each cave they visit.
Anyone who visits a cave in an area where white-nose syndrome should not use that clothing or equipment to explore caves in areas where the disease has not been detected.
Details on how to decontaminate clothing and caving equipment is available on the Fish and Wildlife Service website at fws.gov.
Dennis Sherer can be reached at 256-740-5746 or dennis.sherer@TimesDaily.com.