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What’s Happening to Our Bats?

White Nose Syndrome is now crossing the country

A disease that has been wiping out more than a million bats in the eastern United States is now rapidly spreading west.

Last week, a team of wildlife experts called for urgent action to save the remaining population of Little Brown bats from the fungus that threatens them with extinction.

”If we lose bats, we lose a keystone species,” said Janet Foley, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California at Davis.

Bats are essential members of natural ecosystems. They consume enormous numbers of insects, pollinating plants and scattering seeds. “Bats do the jobs at night that birds do during the day,” said Foley. “But because they are most active in darkness, few people are aware of how many bats live around us and how valuable they are.”

White-nose syndrome looks like frost around the bats’ noses. (Photo by Virginia Living Museum)

The new fungal disease has been named white-nose syndrome (WNS). Scientists think the fungus, which normally lives in soil, somehow traveled to cave walls where bats hibernate in winter and began infecting the animals’ facial skin and wing membranes.

Sick bats appear to be coated with frost. They fly more than normal, which uses up fat reserves, and also lose water at a faster rate than normal. Disoriented, they move to exposed places, such as cave entrances. Eventually, they starve, freeze or die of dehydration.

The first infected bats were found by a cave explorer near Albany, N.Y., in February 2006. Since then, infected bats have been found northward to Ontario and Quebec in Canada, south to Tennessee and west to Oklahoma. Foley and her colleagues expect white-nose syndrome to cross the Rocky Mountains and enter California in the next few years.

”In the three years since its discovery, white-nose syndrome has changed the focus of bat conservation in North America,” Foley explained. “Scientists, policymakers and members of the public will all have a voice in the coming debate over the best course of action.”

Dr Foley’s team includes bat and disease ecologists from three different public agencies and academia and tries to make the point that creative, scientifically-sound ideas will be key to the success of any management plans. The group outlines an outbreak investigation framework that includes establishment of diagnostic standards, case definitions, and gathering of information on potential treatments for similar diseases.

The importance of monitoring bat population health is also stressed, as is improving public education and awareness of the disease, especially as many species of bats live in caves popular among tourists. If current declines in bat populations continue, the researchers expect strong reductions in the ability of bats to reduce insect pests and play important ecological roles in unique cave ecosystems.

The team also call for further studies of the chemical or biological agents that can kill the fungus, but have yet to be proven safe for bats.

Foley and her co-authors’ call to action appears today online in the journal Conservation Biology.