- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia’s hibernating bat population appears headed for the same decimation of the animals experienced by eastern states. Georgia researchers, though, could produce a treatment that helps other states avoid the same result.

The bat die-offs have been blamed on a deadly fungal disease spreading across the country, known as white-nose syndrome. Survey totals released last month in Georgia found the number of bats hibernating in caves and other sites dropped 92 percent during the last six years.

“There are really two options: You can count dead bats and watch white-nose spread across the country, hoping some populations develop a tolerance,” Chris Cornelison, a research associate at Georgia State University, said. “Or you can work like crazy to intervene.”

Cornelison and other Georgia State researchers picked the latter. This winter, teamed with biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, they plan to test a new treatment at an abandoned railway tunnel outside Clayton, Georgia in Rabun County. Once an annual hibernation spot to more than 5,000 bats, state surveyors found only 220 bats there in March.

Since its appearance in the U.S. in 2006, researchers estimate the disease has killed more than 6 million bats in 29 states. The fungus also has been detected in three additional states, as far west as Oklahoma and Nebraska. In March, hikers found a sick bat east of Seattle that confirmed white-nose syndrome has taken an unexpected 1,300-mile leap to the west coast.

The fungal disease is named for the white lesions that can appear on some infected bats’ snouts. The fungus first grows in caves and other cold spots used by bat species that hibernate through winter. The disease invades bats’ tissue, including wings, during the winter hibernation period, irritating them enough to awake and burn through precious fat reserves the animals build up all year.

The dehydrated and emaciated bats are forced to leave the hibernation site but die in the cold or starve while for looking for prey out of season.

Bats are a predator of forest and agricultural pests. The animals’ waste is a main food source for other cave-dwelling organisms, including rare salamanders or crayfish.

The Georgia team has designed a device comparable to a mosquito fogging machine, operated remotely, that will release a gas mixture of natural chemicals successful at slowing fungal growth in lab tests. Cornelison said the team is also developing a smaller device for use in caves or crevasses used by hibernating bats, comparable to an air freshener dispenser you’d see at a gym.

The chemical brew stems from a brainstorm Cornelison had several years ago while on a research team trying to slow down fruit ripening. If the bacteria studied in that lab - called Rhodococcus - kept mold from growing on a banana, “why not a bat?” Cornelison said.

“We’re well past the point we can recover in Georgia to pre-white-nose levels,” Cornelison said. “But if we can prove effectiveness in Georgia, we can move to Washington state or other leading-edge states.”

Research teams in Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and other states have tested similar strategies in the field. For example, researchers have used bacteria on infected bats’ wings to slow down the fungus’ growth.

These are all short-term tools, useful when the fungus is first discovered in a state, said Katie Gillies, a conservation biologist with Bat Conservation International. The organization has helped fund Cornelison’s work.

“With the appearance of white-nose in Washington state, it’s clear that we are really running out of time,” Gillies said. “Bats are so slow to reproduce that we will never see their recovery in a human lifetime.”

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Follow Kathleen Foody at https://twitter.com/katiefoody . Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/kathleen-foody .

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