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WKU biologist studying bat disease

A faculty member in WKU’s Department of Biology is using his research background to address white-nose syndrome, a disease affecting bats.

Carl Dick, assistant professor of biology

“There is great concern about white-nose syndrome spreading into Kentucky,” said Dr. Carl W. Dick, an assistant professor of biology whose research interests include the evolutionary and ecological relationships between host mammals (namely bats) and blood-feeding parasites. “White nose fungus is confirmed to occur in three states that border Kentucky — West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.”

The Tennessee locations include Dunbar Cave State Park near Clarksville. “As the bat flies,” Dr. Dick said, “that’s less than 80 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park.”

Last semester, Dr. Dick met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials as well as representatives of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to discuss the disease and its potential to spread to Kentucky, where many bats live in numerous caves including Mammoth Cave.

White-nose syndrome, a white fungus found on the muzzle and wing membranes of affected bats, was first documented in New York during the 2006-2007 winter and has spread to 10 states in the northeast and eastern United States, most recently Tennessee.

The fungus grows in winter, affects bats that are hibernating and has been associated with the deaths of more than 400,000 bats.

The spread of white nose syndrome has the potential to affect endangered bat species in this region and affect the ecological dynamics of the bat populations and the insects they eat. “Moreover, to offset the good that bats do to control agricultural pests, we might see an increase in the use of pesticides, which could make food more expensive and compound other problems,” he said.

“Kentucky is ground zero for a lot of interesting research on this topic,” said Dr. Dick, who came to WKU after four years as a postdoctoral research scientist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. “We know the disease can spread from bat to bat but we’re not sure if humans can spread the fungus spores from one cave to another cave.  But that possibility seems likely.”

To limit the potential spread by humans, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an advisory, calling for a voluntary moratorium on visits to caves during bat hibernation season.

WKU, which owns or manages several property sites with caves on them, also limited access to minimize the potential for white nose syndrome to spread, Dr. Dick said. Researchers now follow the USFW’s decontamination protocols for all clothing and equipment. “Our responsibility is to protect bat species in these roosting areas,” he said.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources also has contacted private landowners about the importance of protecting bat habitats.

Contact: Carl Dick, carl.dick@wku.edu.

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