Ga. wildlife officials seeking help counting bats

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BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) -- The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is seeking the public's help in counting the number of bats living in the state, a population that has been in decline in recent years.

Katrina Morris, a biologist with the DNR's Nongame Conservation Section, said some caves in North Georgia have seen an estimated 36 percent reduction in population.

She expects similar declines are happening in areas including coastal Georgia.

As bat numbers decline, humans could lose valuable pest deterrents. Bats eat insects like mosquitoes and help control populations of crop pests in Georgia's agricultural regions.

In coastal Georgia, bats are an important food source for other animals like owls, raccoons and snakes, Morris added.

Cave-dwelling bats have become susceptible in recent years to white nose syndrome, a fungus that spreads quickly in the cool, damp caves where certain bat species live.

With no caves in coastal Georgia, populations there may be key in conserving bats statewide because they are less likely to get white nose syndrome and spread it to others in the colony.

But Morris thinks bats along the coast may be on the decline as well.

To find out, biologists need to get a better grasp on the true population of the 16 bat species living in Georgia.

Morris is hoping more people across the state will contribute to this summer's emergence count by getting a good estimate of how many bats come out to feed in the evenings around their homes.

"Emergence counts are one of the easiest ways to estimate bat numbers at summer roosts," Morris said.

In coastal Georgia, she is hoping people who see bats flying around as the sun sets will take a little time to sit quietly and try to count as many as they can when the bats leave their roosts.

"You can invite your friends over to enjoy the show and take advantage of the natural pest control the bats are providing," Morris said.

Morris is particularly interested in yellow bat populations in coastal Georgia that like to live in Spanish moss and palm fronds and are susceptible to residential mosquito spraying.

Numbers of yellow bats and other species like the Seminole bat and evening bat may also be declining due to habitat loss, Morris said.

To promote a healthy bat population in coastal Georgia, she suggests those who are interested install a bat box around their property. The box will attract bats that can reduce mosquito populations in the area and provide an opportunity for residents to count the winged mammals.

"You can have hundreds of bats in one bat box," Morris said.

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