White nose syndrome in bats

“It struck me, as I stood there holding a bag with several dozen stiff, almost weightless bats, that I was witnessing mass extinction,” so states a recent entry from an eyewitness account of the recent disappearance of bats numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Most of the dead bats have been found in caves and areas surrounding caves throughout the Northeastern United States. Some sites have reported near 100 percent mortality rates in certain bat populations. Biologists with the National Park Service have set up video cameras in and around a mine in order to assess the bat’s erratic behavior, one of the signs that WNS is apparent in a population.

WNS, or “White-nose Syndrome” has severely diminished the hibernating bat population in an area that spreads from Vermont to Virginia, over to Iowa and as far south as Florida. Researchers are trying to determine if a skin infection caused by the fungus “Geomyces dectructans” has anything to do with aberrant behaviors in the bats that cause them to stay active longer when insects are no longer available for food, thus depleting their winter fat reserves which results in premature death.

• White-nose syndrome in bats

The white-nose syndrome is a fungus which causes the muzzles of the bats to turn white. Scientists think the fungus may be causing the bats to exhibit very unusual behavior during the winter period of hibernation.

There are currently six species of hibernating bats in the Northeast that are affected by WNS; Big brown bats, Eastern small-footed myotis, Little brown myotis, Northern myotis, Indian myotis, and the Tri-colored bat. 25 species of bats hibernate in caves and mines throughout the United States. All are currently at risk for contracting WNS. The organization, Bat Conservation International (BCS) reports that Congress has approved almost $2 million in federal funding for research to identify the cause and seek solutions to this problem.

• The devastating effect on humans

The loss and possible extinction of bats would indeed be devastating to the United States. Merlin Tuttle, a biologist for BCS reports, “white-nose syndrome is the most serious threat to American wildlife in the past century.” Bats are important pollinators and have a huge impact on insect control. A single bat eats half it’s weight in insects every night, including roughly 1,000 mosquitoes. A large colony of bats is capable of consuming almost 40,000 pounds of insects each and every night. Bats also save billions of dollars for farmers each year by eating many agricultural pests. If bats became extinct, vegetable production would certainly decline and prices for produce would shoot up due to shortages. Not to mention the additional cost and environmental damage to the surrounding area. Bats serve a vital purpose in the ecosystem of every community in the United States.

•The symptom of a much larger problem

The ominous threat of WNS is hard to quantify but one thing is certain: The loss of bats will have a cascading effect in the surrounding environment, and eventually it will affect humans. Bats in Europe also have a similar fungus common to bat populations there, but the European fungus does not kill the bats.

Bat deaths due to WNS in the United States may be due to a combination of factors including pesticides, naturally occurring climate change, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, habitat destruction, and genetically modified organisms. Some scientists even believe WNS could be spread by well-meaning cavers and visitors to the bat’s habitats. And the problem is not limited only to bats. Many species, including bats, birds, pollinating insects, and bees are inching closer each year to the brink of extinction.

Since it’s discovery in a New York cave back in February 2006, white-nose syndrome has spread throughout the Northeastern United States and is expected to reach Southern and Midwestern states very soon. Researchers, scientists, and biologists working closely with state and federal agencies across the country are desperately searching for the answer to this profound mystery.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently awarded $800,000 in grants to discover the cause of this deadly fungus. The effects of WNS on U.S. bat populations should serve as a wake up call. The life-sustaining systems of this Earth of which man has long taken for granted may be at risk.