Written by Hannah Arios, ESLLC 2015-2016
Everyone knows bats are important. We learn about how they help pollinate and keep insect population under management. We also learn about their hibernation and how important hibernation is for them to stay alive through the winter season. There are more than 1,300 species of bats globally and they all are integral part of the local and global ecosystem.
According to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the bat population is being endangered. There’s a fungus spreading like wildfire, decimating entire colonies. It’s more commonly known as White-nose syndrome or WNS. The fungus grows on bats’ noses, wings, and ears during hibernation. The fungus causes damage by spreading through the bats’ skin tissues. Bats with WNS wake more during their hibernation period that depletes their fat reserves need to supplement them through to spring. Because affected bats are waking when they’re not supposed to, eventually, they’ll need to replace the expended fat. Since it’s winter, there aren’t insects flying around to feed them, so these affected bats eventually starve to death. But the fungus also affects skin tissues that can lead to wing damage.
The fungus is spread by direct contact from other bats, but it can also be carried by humans on their clothing, like their shoes, that they can bring into a cave where bats sleep.
WNS is estimated to have killed over six million bats on the Eastern coast of the U.S. It can also kill 100% of bats during their hibernation, which means that there can be whole colonies of bats affected and later, killed.
However, according to The Huffington Post, the fungus has spread to the Western coast of the U.S. A brown bat with the disease was discovered on a trail near Seattle in March. Until this unfortunate finding, the farthest the disease had spread was to Nebraska, so the question is how did the disease get from Nebraska to Washington State without leaving more infected bats in the wake? David Blehert, branch chief of the USGS National Wildlife Health Centre’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories, has offered two theories. One theory is that there was bat to bat contact or that the disease spread due to unknowing human carriers. The latter is far more probable, because if the disease had spread from bat to bat contact, there would have been more cases of bats found with white noses in the jump to Washington.
One of the problems with this disease suddenly appearing in Washington, besides the fact that it’s going to destroy more colonies, is that scientists don’t know how susceptible Western bats are going to be with the disease, since this is the first recorded case. Without that knowledge, moving forward to finding a cure and finding preventative measures to vaccinate bats is going to be difficult.
However, to prevent more bat deaths in the East due to humans spreading the disease, caves where bats hibernate have been closed to hikers. We need to close more caves where bats live to make sure that the bats are going to be protected.