4-Year WNS Treatment at Black Diamond Tunnel
Georgia State University researchers Chris Cornelison, Kyle Gabriel, and Sidney Crow of Georgia State University received bat conservation funding provided by Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Company (Transco) to begin a collaborative, 4-year project to develop and implement white-nose syndrome treatment methods at Black Diamond Tunnel, an abandoned railway tunnel in northeastern Georgia that was once refuge for the largest recorded colony of tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) in Georgia. Biologists Katrina Morris of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GA-DNR) and Pete Pattavina of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are co-investigators on the project and routinely collect winter census data on bat populations at Black Diamond Tunnel and throughout the state of Georgia. Transco’s bat conservation funds, managed by the non-profit group The Conservation Fund, represent a new weapon in the arsenal against white-nose syndrome, one of the most devastating wildlife diseases ever witnessed in human history.
Chris, Kyle, Pete, and Katrina, along with Jackie Jeffery, a research coordinator with the GA-DNR, met up March 1st, 2016, to conduct the annual survey of Black Diamond Tunnel. Elbow to elbow, we sat in an aluminum boat and paddled slowly through the frigid water into the pitch-black tunnel. Historically, Black Diamond Tunnel harbored over 5,000 tri-colored bats. White-nose syndrome has since had a profound impact, reducing populations from 5,517 in 2013 (pre-WNS) to 3,472 in 2014, 500 in 2015, and 220 from the latest survey (3/1/2016), indicating less than 5% remain from what the population once was.
Number of bats in Black Diamond Tunnel from surveys from 2010 through 2016 (data from GA-DNR)
Our collaboration will seek to test the in situ efficacy of treatment methods utilizing antifungal volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are able to inhibit fungal growth through gaseous exposure, and their ability to combat white-nose syndrome in a cave-like environment where bats naturally hibernate. The researchers at Georgia State University have been investigating the ability of bacterially-produced VOCs to inhibit Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. They believe they have the potential to provide wildlife management officials with a safe and effective treatment method for increasing bat survivorship.
Read more about Black Diamond Tunnel:
DNR: Finding a Killer: On the Trail of White-nose Syndrome (2013) by Pete Pattavina
NPR: Bat-Killing Fungus Spreads In Georgia (2014) by Michell Eloy & Dan Raby
DNR: Another Bad Winter for Georgia’s Bats (2015) by Katrina Morris
The approach to Black Diamond Tunnel is flanked on both sides by solid rock.
The entrance, seen a few feet past the jagged outer rocks, is approximately 16 feet tall and 12 feet wide, with a nearly flat center ceiling with a rounded basket arch.
Chris Cornelison and Pete Pattavina sink several inches into the shore as they survey the entrance with spotlights.
The tunnel was built at a downward slope into the mountain, and has since completely flooded. The ceiling progressively descends to 2.5 feet above the water as we approach the end of the tunnel, 1300 feet into the mountain, before briefly opening back up into a 4-foot tall chamber with 15 to 20 feet of water beneath our boat.
A lone tri-colored bat hibernates as it hangs on a ledge.
Jackie Jeffery and Katrina Morris search the wall for bats to swab, which will be sent for analysis to determine if the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome can be detected.
Safely back on shore, we discuss the future and the work ahead of us.
Researchers and wildlife managers convene with the land owner to discuss what was discovered and plan for the future.
All Photos © Kyle T. Gabriel