It's supposed to be the heart of winter, but bats in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been out and about, leading park officials to warn visitors about encountering bats.
The park's wildlife staff recently received numerous reports of unusual winter bat activity. Normally, bats should be hibernating during the winter, but bats have been described as flying erratically during the day and diving down toward people, a park release said.
Park biologists do not know the exact cause of this unusual bat activity, but urge all visitors to exercise caution as bats are known to carry diseases such as rabies. Skin to skin contact should be avoided.
Great Smoky is one of a number of National Park System units where "white-nose syndrome," a disease fatal to bats, has been detected. Bats with WNS appear to use up their precious fat reserves too quickly to stay in hibernation through the winter. Scientists theorize that the fungus, which looks like a white powder on a bat's face, irritates the bats, making them restless and causing them to wake early from winter hibernation. They speculate that the affected bats could freeze to death or starve before the insects on which they feed emerge in the spring.
While WNS is not considered a threat to human health, bats can carry rabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the transmission of the rabies virus from bats can occur from minor, seemingly unimportant, or unrecognized bites from bats. For human safety, it is important not to touch or handle a bat. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends you seek immediate medical advice if you have had skin to skin exposure to a bat.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to at least 11 species of bats that play a critical role in the health of ecosystems by consuming insects including mosquitoes and agricultural insect pests. One of the species in the park, the Indiana bat, is federally endangered and another, the Rafinesque's big-eared bat, is a state listed species of concern in both Tennessee and North Carolina.
If you see a bat or any other wild animal that is acting strange and you suspect it may be sick or injured, avoid the animal and contact Park Communications at 865-436-1230. Unusual bat activity outside the park should be reported to state wildlife agencies.