White-nose Syndrome

Since the winter of 2006, White-nose Syndrome has killed more than 5.7 million bats in Eastern North America. White-nose Syndrome (WNS) is a disease caused by a non-native, cold-loving fungus now found in the caves of the affected regions. It was first discovered in New York caves during the winter of 2006-2007, initially killing half of the wintering bat population. The name of the disease refers to the white fungal growth found on the noses of infected bats.

The fungus is currently killing hibernating bat species in 16 states and 4 Canadian provinces. It continues to spread across the continent. Little brown bats, once a common bat in the area, are sustaining the largest number of deaths. Caves infected with WNS are displaying a 90-100% bat mortality- wiping out most of the cave bat populations. A Department of Environmental Conservation survey shows a 93% decline of little brown bats in 23 caves at the epicenter of WNS. Currently five other hibernating bat species are affected by the fungus: big brown bat, northern long-eared bat, tri-colored bat, eastern small-footed bat and the endangered Indiana bat. The disease is spreading rapidly and has the potential to infect at least half the of the bat species found in North America.

What is this fungus and how is it killing the bats? That’s what many bat scientists are asking themselves. We still don’t have all of the answers or a cure. The white fungus found on the bats is scientifically called Geomyces destructans. Research has shown that WNS infected bats are awaking from hibernation as often as every 3-4 days as opposed to the normal every 10-20 days. The fungus damages the connective tissues, muscles and skin of the bats while also disrupting their physiological functions. The bats wake up dehydrated and hungry during the cold winters when there are no insects to eat. Unfortunately, about 90% of the bats affected perish due to starvation.

The fungus is native to European caves where it evolved with the European bats, allowing the bats to coexist and not be harmed by the fungus. The fungus can be transferred cave to cave from the equipment used in each if it is not properly disinfected. It is hypothesized that this method may have been what brought Geomyces destructans to the United States. The fungus does not only spread from equipment used in multiple caves, it is also transferrable bat to bat. Humans are not susceptible to White-nose Syndrome because the fungus requires a cold body temperature to survive.

The bat conservation community is deeply concerned and involved with fighting the spread of WNS. Researchers are working on finding a way to mitigate this fatal disease. Federal, state and local organizations are focusing on conservation, containment and education.

Environmental Impacts

Bats are the primary predators of night-flying insects. They eat large numbers of moths and beetles. Insect-eating bats are crucial to a healthy ecosystem. Bats play a crucial role in maintaining an ecological balance. An individual bat can eat thousands of insects every night. By controlling insect populations, bats are critical to forestry, human health and they also save the agricultural industry at least $23 billion dollars each year. Without bats the agricultural industry will use more pesticides and food costs may also increase.

What is OBC doing to Help?

The Organization for Bat Conservation is dedicated to protecting bats and their habitats. We have dedicated funds to supporting WNS research, providing roosting alternatives, and enhancing communication among researchers, agencies, environmental organizations, and the general public.

OBC donated funds toward an experimental freezer that is being used to study this new cold-loving fungus at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. OBC also donated 6 bat houses toward a joint study by the Indiana State University Center for Bat Research and Conservation and University of Winnipeg. We also helped fund a project at Arkansas State University by Evan Lacy Pannkuk (Ph.D. student).

At the North American Symposium on Bat Research (NASBR) held in Toronto, Ontario in October, a graduate student won OBC’s award for his bat conservation efforts. Students qualified for the award if they presented a poster at the conference on their research efforts toward bat conservation. The 2011 awardee, Michael S. Fishman, a graduate student and environmental consultant, focuses his research on White-nose Syndrome (WNS), endangered Indiana bats and minimizing land use impacts on bats in the New York region. His poster presentation at NASBR, “Bat Species Frequency Distributions Shift After White Nose Syndrome Reaches the West Point Military Reservation,” compares species caught in 2002 (pre-WNS) to their survey results in 2008. They noted a significant decline in little brown bat species, which also supports other WNS surveys. The poster can be found in the documents below, entitled NASBR-OBC Poster Award.pdf.

In addition to funding research, OBC is sponsoring, participating in, and helping to organize local, state, and regional information-sharing meetings. These include the Michigan Bat Working Group, Midwest Bat Working Group, and bats and mines conference.

How can you help?

You should not handle bats. If you come across live or dead bats with White-nose Syndrome, contact your state wildlife agency or a nearby U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office. Cavers are asked to continue to observe all cave closures and advisories, and to avoid caves or passages of caves containing large hibernating populations of any bat species. Everyone should follow proper decontamination protocols when visiting caves, mines or coming in contact with bats.

You can also help the bats survive when they are not hibernating. Plant moth-attracting wildflower gardens to give bats food to eat. Leave up dead or dying trees to give bats natural shelter. Build or buy a bat house to provide adequate roosting for bats in your area. Teach your friends and family about the importance of bats. Donate Today!

For the most up to date information, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's page on White-nose Syndrome.

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© 2012 Organization for Bat Conservation