ATLANTA — Some evenings, Frank Bibin takes a chair, sets it under the pecan trees that grow outside his home and makes himself comfortable. In one hand he holds a flashlight; the other grasps a device no larger than a cell phone. He waits.
When shadowy figures begin darting among the leaves of his trees, Bibin switches on the little machine, a simple sonar tracker. He listens: click.click.click.
Each click is a reminder that he’s not alone in his grove a few miles from the Georgia-Florida line in Brooks County. He’s tracking flying bats, whose nocturnal feedings on moths and other parasites help keep his farm pesticide-free.
The clicks, he knows, also assure him that a disease that has decimated millions of bats elsewhere in the nation has not come as far south as his home 230 miles south of Atlanta. The affliction is called white nose syndrome, and it’s got Bibin and others worried – for good reason. The disease has reached northwest Georgia, threatening millions of bats.
What happens to bats has profound implications for creatures higher up the food chain. Bats love insects, and can eat as much as half their body weight in bugs in one night.
Bibin understands. “I’m definitely watching for it,” said Bibin, who operates Pebble Hill Grove organic farm with his wife, Teresa. “I would be totally devastated if it moved here.”
Few people are aware of white nose syndrome, or WNS. It’s a quiet disaster, taking place in dark places where few people go. WNS, one biologist recently wrote, “is possible extinction in its rawest and ugliest form.”
It’s been steadily advancing south since its discovery in 2006 among bats hibernating in a New York cave. A fungal infection in the soil that leaves bats with white residue on their faces, WNS has spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces. Scientists theorize it came from Europe, brought here by material on a cave explorer’s equipment.
State and federal researchers found it among bats in a cave at Cloudland Canyon State Park in northwest Georgia last month. The same week, scientists in South Carolina announced the disease’s discovery in that state.
Bats and humans are responsible for the disease’s migration – bats mixing among uninfected populations, and humans exploring caves who transfer the blight from one subterranean environment to another.
It has killed more than 5 million bats. In some caves, WNS has killed every bat wintering inside their rocky confines.
“It’s a new disease, unlike anything we’ve seen before,” said Ann Froschauer, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bats don’t have the best PR, said Trina Morris, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. A lot of people, she said, needlessly fear bats.
“I think they’re beautiful,” said Morris, whose colleagues call her “bat girl.”
In February, Morris and others visited a cave in Paulding County, 40 miles northwest of Atlanta. Donning protective gear and head lamps, they descended about a half-mile into a cavern whose craggy walls were dotted with sleepy little Myotis septentrionalis and Perimyotis subflavus – Northern long-eared and tri-colored bats, respectively. They resembled furry june bugs with dog faces and dragon wings, big-eared and vulnerable in slumber.
In that probe, they found no evidence of WNS – and allowed themselves the hope that the plague might have passed them by. That optimism lasted until their visit to Cloudland Canyon three weeks later.
“Even though I expected to find it, I wasn’t prepared for my reaction to finding it,” said Morris. “It was very distressing.”
Now, said Morris, biologists have to wait and see whether WNS sweeps through Georgia’s bat populations as thoroughly as it has in New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
It may not, as the disease appears to do most damage in colder weather. WNS spreads on the skin of hibernating bats, rousing them from slumber. Once awake, the bats begin burning more fat, forcing them to go out in search of insects – only to discover their food supply is hidden under a mantle of snow or dead leaves. WNS sufferers often starve to death.
Georgia bats forced out to search for food in winter might have better luck. If the weather is warm enough, they’ll find something to eat.
The disease is a modern-day reminder of earlier biological holocausts. Pete Pattavina, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently sounded an alarm.
“The passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakett, ivory-billed woodpeckers and even the decimation of American chestnut forests – these were textbook abstractions of extinction that biologists shake their heads over,” Pattavina wrote. “Seeing how this aggressive, exotic fungus is attacking these small animals is not some quiet suggestion of a problem, but possible extinction in its rawest and ugliest form screaming in our faces.”
Morris was just as emphatic. The best defense, she said, is to follow federal guidelines for disinfecting clothes and gear between cave visits. In time, perhaps, bats will build up a resistance to the quiet killer.
“There’s no way to prevent it,” she said. “And that’s the worst part.”