White-nose syndrome: Where did all the bats go?

Over one million dead.

Nearly 100% mortality at some sites.

White-nose Syndrome (WNS) was first detected in the United States in a New York cave in February of 2006. Since then it has spread to nine species in nineteen states, and each year it spreads farther, continuing to wipe out hibernating bat populations in its path. Scientists are predicting regional extinctions of the little brown bat, formerly one of the most common bat species, in the northeastern United States by 2026. And an even greater concern, are the critical hibernation sites of the already endangered Indiana, gray, and Virginia big-eared bats; it is only a matter of time until these too become infected. Twenty-five of the United States’ 47 bats species hibernate in caves and mines, meaning more than half our bat species are at risk of contracting the fungus responsible for this disease.

The cold-loving fungus Geomyces destructans covers the wings and noses of bats while they hibernate in caves over the winter. While the impact on the bats is still being studied, it appears to disrupt the delicate energy and water balances needed for bats to maintain the proper reserves for their long winter’s sleep. Infected bats have been documented rousing from sleep more frequently and many end up venturing out of the cave in mid-winter. These bats usually freeze to death or die of starvation, and those that remain often have irreparable damage to their wings and immune systems. With such high mortality rates, researchers who revisit hibernation caves annually are finding caves transformed into tombs with bodies of dead bats littering the floor.

So why should you care?

WNS-related bat losses will affect us all. By eating insects that damage crops and carry disease, bats provide an invaluable service. Losing bats would cost U.S. farmers more than $3.7 billion in lost crops and increased pesticide use, increasing the financial strain on farming families, raising the price of food for consumers, and releasing more chemicals into our environment. Not to mention the added impact we’ll be feeling with more disease carrying mosquitoes buzzing around our backyards.

This is not unlike the sudden and rapid decline seen in honeybees in the winter of 2006-2007. More than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies (tens of billions of bees) were lost to Colony Collapse Disorder. This loss cost America’s agriculture an estimated $8-12 billion, and is still impacting farmers across the nation who have reported continued decline of honeybee colonies.

However, unlike with Colony Collapse Disorder, there is still a lot we do not know about White-nose Syndrome including exactly how it’s transmitted. While $4 million was provided for WNS research and activities in the most recent Interior Appropriations bill, the amount requested was closer to $11million. With so many other program areas being slashed, gaining this amount of funding warrants some celebration, but without the full funding provided we will lack the tools and knowledge needed to truly combat this disease.

Can we afford to leave our bats hanging?

- JF 

Comments: 2

6 years ago

Just spent 1 hour after dusk @ my pond; I did not see 1 bat....bitten by a dozen mosquitoes though. Several years ago 20 or 30 bats would magically appear at this time. Very sad and of great concern!

6 years ago

This represents a very serious threat and new information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and partners has confirmed this. The updated estimate of bat deaths as a result of white-nose syndrome is 5.7-6.7 million. As the disease continues to spread this death toll is expected to continue to rise.

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