Biologists predict 95 percent decline in Georgia bats

by: Craig Lucie Updated:

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ATLANTA - Georgia bats are dying off at an alarming rate, and that could have a big impact on what you pay at the grocery store.

Channel 2’s Craig Lucie crawled into a North Georgia cave to see how a disease is impacting bats first hand.

Biologists told Lucie that a fungus has caused possibly the worst wildlife decline in recorded history.

"The declines have been pretty significant, and this site is no different," said biologist Trina Morris, with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Lucie went with Morris on a survey of Howard's Waterfall Cave, in Dade County, to monitor bats.

Morris said the cave previously housed hundreds of hibernating bats, but white nose syndrome, a fungus that grows on bats while they are asleep in caves, has caused an 80 percent decline in the state's bat population.

"We expect that after this field season, where we're surveying all these sites again, we'll probably have declines of more than 95 percent," Morris said of Georgia cave-hibernating bats.

Farmers told Lucie they have seen a decline, too.

"When we first moved out here, we had a lot more bats," Liz Porter said about her Cherokee County farm.

Bats can nearly eat their weight in insects overnight. Porter said she uses pesticides as a last resort, so bats are a big help.

"You need to have either a natural predator or you have to come up with some other way of avoiding the pest damage," Porter said.

Bats help much more than organic farming.

A U.S. Geological Survey estimated bats save U.S. agriculture anywhere from $3 billion to $53 billion per year. 

A 2015 National Academy of Sciences study found bats contribute $1 billion to the global corn industry.

Without bats, this could mean higher produce prices for Americans.

"We certainly think it will have an impact on farmers and on other people who are impacted by pests," Morris said.

Seven million bats have died from white nose syndrome since it spread from New York in 2008.

The disease infects the bats while they are hibernating because their metabolic functions nearly come to a halt.

The fluffy white fungus eats through the thin skin on bats' wings, causing potentially lethal inflammation.

If that does not kill them, it could wake the bats, causing them to freeze or starve in the cold winter.

Researchers at Georgia State University are helping scientists across the county scramble for a cure.

"The images of all these dead bats in a cave floor really stuck with me," said microbiologist Chris Cornelison.

He was helping with research to slow the ripening of fruit.

Experiments used a bacteria, rhodococcus rhodochrous, to slow fungus on bananas.

Cornelison discovered he could slow the spread of white nose on hibernating bats, allowing them to live through the winter.

"The results were so completely compelling," Cornelison said of his research.

Cornelison said the cost of produce is only a small part of what's at stake if we lose more bats.

"In a state like Georgia, that has a large agricultural footprint, those bats contribute greatly to that agricultural output," Cornelison said. "The loss of those can only be compensated by increases in pesticides, which may have cascading effects on the ecosystem."

Georgia State researchers now have a prototype to get bacteria into infected caves.

What they described as a high-powered "Glade air freshener," will spray bacteria into the cave, putting bats in contact with rhodococcus rhodochrous without waking them up.

"White nose syndrome is a totally different ballgame than what we're used to. The bats are highly sensitive to disturbance," Cornelison said. "The caves are challenging logistically to get into, so it takes real outside-the-box thinking to develop strategies that fit."

Morris said she is excited to work with universities to test research in Georgia caves. She said the help can't come soon enough.

"If we lose bats at the rate we've been losing them, we're not going to recover anytime in the near future," Morris said.