The Chattanooga Nature Center will host its annual Bat Watch evenings this summer, but nobody knows how many bats will be left to see after this year due to a disease sweeping through the nation's bat populations.
"Who knows, maybe I can't do this program next year," said Kyle Waggener, lead naturalist and director of education for CNC. "There may be no bats to see by then."
CNC will host Bat Watches June 24 and July 15 at 7:15 p.m. with a participation fee of $7 for adult members and $3.50 for children ages 4 to 11. Participation for nonmembers costs $10 and $5 for children ages 4 to 11. The event will start with a slide show in the nature center with facts and information about bats.
Following the presentation, participants will car caravan to the Nickajack Cave, which holds more than 60,000 gray bats.
Waggener said White-Nose Syndrome is now threatening bat populations across nearly the whole eastern United States. So far, White-Nose has been found in nine species of bat, seven of which are found in Tennessee.
Once a colony is infected, up to 95 percent of the population can die.
New studies have found that the syndrome may be caused by fungal spores that thrive in the damp, cool regions of caves.
Last year, White-Nose was officially discovered in Tennessee and all public caves were closed to discourage the possible spread and contamination of the bacteria from one cave to the next.
"In the Northeast, some caves have lost 95 percent of the bat population," Waggener said. "The little brown bat population has dropped so much they think it will soon be extinct in that part of the country."
Waggener said that the gray bat, which is on the endangered species list, had been recovering so well that scientists were thinking about taking it off the list, but due to White-Nose Syndrome the species may now be in even worse danger. A small percentage of the bats in each colony affected are immune to the sickness, and there are other species such as Hoary Bats that do not live in caves and are not in danger. However, the potential devastation of the country's bat population will have more than an effect on bat viewings.
"I saw a study that said the most conservative estimate is that bats do $3 billion worth of pest control just in the U.S.," Waggener said. "Forty percent of the Earth's oxygen comes from tropical rain forests and 90 percent of the plants of the southern hemisphere's tropical rain forests are dependent on bats for pollination."