Outbreak of White-Nose Syndrome Threatens North American Bat Populations

It was in February of 2006 when it was first noticed in the states. In a cave west of Albany, New York, a visitor snapped a picture of a colony of bats in the midst of their hibernation.  Around the muzzle of many of the sleeping bats was what looked like nothing more than a fuzzy patch of white.  Along the floor, lay dead bats with the similar marking on the tips of their noses.

Already existing in Europe, white-nose syndrome (WNS) had made its way across the Atlantic and into the caves of the American northwest and parts of Canada.  Since then, instances of the disease have popped up in many more caves quickly moving its way across the country wiping out massive populations of bat species including ones which are already threatened with extinction.  Among the affected species are the endangered Indiana bat, Virginia big-eared bat, Ozark big-eared bat, gray bat, and the highly common little brown bat.

Not much is known about this deadly disease, other than its fierce ability to wipe out bats.  While it is popularly believed that the disease must have been brought over from Europe, it is primarily surmised as to how it arrived in the first place. Since bats do not travel between Europe and North America, researchers have only to guess that white-nose syndrome was introduced to bats this side of the Atlantic by travelers who visited caves in both places.  While the disease is the same, the outcome is quite different—bats in Europe remain relatively unscathed. 

This sharp decline in bat numbers can have a devastating impact on the world surrounding it. A bat is “nature’s own nocturnal insect-eating machine” acting as a natural pesticide, eating thousands of insects every night.  The decline in bats would be an upset to the natural balance of the environment.  Additionally, the amount of service their eating habits provide the American farmer is phenomenal—it is estimated that this pest-eating service would otherwise cost American farmers an estimated 3 to 54 billion dollars a year!  And these numbers do not even account for their services to forestry and their ecosystem.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, since 2007 (when the New York Department of Environmental Conservation biologists first documented the WNS outbreak) more than one million bats have died from this disease…and the mystery still remains as to what exactly this disease is.  What is perhaps most tragic about this whole scenario is that these bats have no real way to combat the disease. While they are hibernating and most vulnerable, WNS spreads through the group—absorbed through their thin skin and killing them as they sleep.  “We have found sick, dying and dead bats in unprecedented numbers in and around caves and mines from New Hampshire to Tennessee,” explains the FWS on their website.  “In some hibernacula [winter quarters], 90 to 100 percent of the bats are dying.”

Unless scientists can get to the root of the disease (and quickly), these numerous species of bats will take leaping steps closer and closer to complete extinction.  For the time being, the race against time is simply that—a race.  Researchers are fighting to find just what this disease is and how to best remedy it.  But it still remains a struggle.  Funding for research into this epidemic is little and far between, leaving bat supporters struggling to get whatever federal help they can.

Groups like Bat Conservation International and SaveOurBats.org are pushing for support from the federal government and are urging members of the federal government to include research on white-nose syndrome in the 2013 budget.  A petition could even be signed on ForceChange urging President Obama to include WNS research in the 2013 fiscal year budget.

On a smaller scale, there is still much that can be done to protect these bat populations.  By pushing the Bureau of Land Management to restrict access to caves and mines (that house hibernating bats) and only allow those necessary and qualified to enter, we can hope to cut down on the likelihood that any cave visitor may carry the disease to any unaffected area.  Already the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area has been the “first park in the National Park Service system to close entrances to caves on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides because of [this] lethal fungus killing millions of hibernating bats nationwide.”

To pledge your support for bats and demand that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management continue to restrict access to caves and mines until this problem is taken care of, sign the petition here.

Photo Credit: encrypted-tbn1.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSAjxsqWUbMKe1i-yqEdkCH5qVoCIzCsV61gOyw6v51mpKiD8NNAw

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