White-Nose Syndrome Driving These Mammals Batty

A cluster of little brown bats in New York exhibiting the symptoms of white-nose syndrome. The fungus disturbs the hibernation of bats, which ultimately leads to starvation. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

A cluster of little brown bats in New York exhibiting the symptoms of white-nose syndrome. The fungus disturbs the hibernation of bats, which ultimately leads to starvation. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Editor’s note: Second story in an occasional series this summer by ecoRI News intern Abbey Greene about threatened/endangered animals living in southern New England.

By ABBEY GREENE/ecoRI News contributor

The last official estimate was 5.7 to 6.7 million deaths. White-nose syndrome has spread across the country, originating in New York, and now 26 states are affected. But what is being killed? Bats.

“And a lot more bats have died since that estimation was taken,” said Rob Mies, executive director of the Michigan-based nonprofit Organization for Bat Conservation. “I’d be comfortable saying an upwards of ten million bats have died from this disease by now.”

About seven species of bats in America are being affected by white-nose syndrome. White-nose syndrome is a fungus that grows on a bats nose, usually developing in colder temperatures and in enclosed, smaller spaces such as caves. The fungus irritates the bat and causes it discomfort, making the bat awaken during its hibernation period. Waking up costs the mammal vital calories, and leads to starvation.

Catherine Hibbard, of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said there are bats in every area of the United States, including southern New England, that are dying. She noted that entire populations are being wiped out.

She said the three major bat species that are being affected in southern New England are the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tri-colored bat. These bats eat almost half their body weight in insects daily, and without them, Hibbard said, ecosystems would spiral out of balance.

“Here in New England, the people are noticing this problem, and more and more action is being taken,” Hibbard said.

University of Michigan professor Phil Myers specializes in bats, including those suffering from white-nose syndrome. He believes there is a possibility this could end badly for our night-flying friends.

“I do believe extinction is possible,” Myers said. “These bats reproduce very slowly — only one young per year. It would be many decades for the populations to recover.”

There is good news, however. Recent studies have shown viable treatment options may be possible. While treatment for the fungus is difficult and chemicals could disrupt other ecosystem variables, the U.S. Forest Service has come up with a possible solution: bacteria.

A naturally occurring soil-derived bacteria that is used to slow the ripening of fruit, may be able to stop the growth of the fungus on bats. So far, exposure trials have had positive effects, and discussion of this research will take place in July. If all goes according to plan, the bacteria could be introduced into bat habitat later this year.

“It’s a pretty exciting time. We’ve made a lot of progress,” Mies said. “We know so much about the fungus ... and now we know possible ways to eradicate it and help the bats.”

One may wonder, “Well, what can I do?”

Myers said to be careful anywhere around caves and areas bats may be. Don’t disturb them, as they need all the rest they can get. Additionally, whenever you are visiting an area known to have bats, make sure your clothing is free of spores from other areas where white-nose syndrome could have been dwelling. This will help prevent further spreading of the disease.