Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopens area known for bat caves

This tri-colored bat has white-nose syndrome
This tri-colored bat has white-nose syndrome Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A nationally recognized area known for its bat caves reopened Friday in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Declining bat populations prompted park officials to close the Whiteoak Sink area in September.

Through Thursday, the area remained off limits to hikers and other visitors to limit the spread of white-nose syndrome, or WNS, a fungal disease.

Humans are not susceptible to the disease but can inadvertently spread it among bat populations.

Whiteoak Sink will remain open with limited access through May 15. Park biologists will continue monitoring bat populations as they emerge from winter hibernacula.

The area is primarily accessed from the Schoolhouse Gap Trail.

Hikers may descend into the Whiteoak Sink area, but access to the waterfall and additional areas are closed. The closed areas are marked by orange fencing or signs.

“The Whiteoak Sink area provides critical wintering habitats for bats,” park superintendent Cassius Cash said in a statement this week. “We ask that everyone respect these closures in order to minimize disturbance to declining bat populations as they emerge from hibernation.”

Biologists continue to see dramatic declines in cave-dwelling bats in the park due to white-nose syndrome. In 2015, researchers from Indiana State University documented summer population declines ranging from 73 percent for tri-colored bats to 99 percent for little brown bats.

Infected bats have a white fungal growth on their noses, wings and tail membrane. The skin irritation damages skin tissue, causing the bats to wake from hibernation in winter. Once aroused, the bats burn energy much faster, depleting stored fat. With no food source available in winter, the bats soon die.

Infected bats exhibit unusual behavior, including flying erratically during the day, even in winter, and diving down toward people. They may be seen flopping around on the ground near cave openings.

The park has 12 species of bats, including the federally endangered Indiana bat and the federally threatened northern long-eared bat.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak

Why care about bats?

Bats play a significant role in maintaining ecological balance as the primary predators of night-flying insects.

Biologists estimate that one bat can eat between 3,000 to 6,000 insects each night, including moths, beetles and mosquitoes.

Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park