A hibernating bat with the tell-tale white nose that indicates disease.
Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The list is long, growing and, ultimately, sad.
The number of states with white-nose syndrome – a fungal disease that kills hibernating bats at massive rates and has been for years – now stands at 33. They span the country from Maine to Alabama and Virginia to Texas. The disease is even in Washington, having jumped the Rockies.
That’s likely not the end of things either.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects it “to continue spreading.”
That’s bad news for bats.
It infects those trying to sleep through winter. It causes them to wake up often and prematurely, something that’s deadly.
“Impacted bats deplete their fat reserves months before their normal springtime emergence from hibernation and starve to death as a result,” says the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. .
Globe-trotting people are likely to blame for its presence. It first showed up in 2007.
“The most likely scenario is that someone visited a site in Europe where the fungus was and inadvertently brought it to a site near Albany, New York, possibly on their shoes, clothes or gear,” says the White-Nose Syndrome Response Team. That’s a collaboration of wildlife biologists, researchers, land managers and bat lovers from across the country.
It’s devastated bats everywhere it’s spread since. The Fish and Wildlife Service believes millions of bats died following its arrival.
Some species are impacted worse than others. Little brown bat populations, for example, have declined by about 90 percent across their range nationally. They dropped by as much as 97 percent in West Virginia and 99 percent in Pennsylvania.
White-nose poses no human safety threat, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. But bats are a “top predator” of flying insects like mosquitoes and other pests, it added.
So it’s important they hang on.
For that reason, efforts to help bats survive the disease are underway all across the country.
The Fish and Wildlife Service authored a national white-nose battle plan. It outlines a number of possible strategies.
Some haven’t panned out.
At one point, for example, there was hope that spraying spearmint oil in caves with hibernating bats would kill the fungus. Instead, it killed bats, if not outright than faster than the disease itself would have.
So investigators are exploring other treatments.
One experiment is underway in Pennsylvania. Researchers last November sprayed a one-mile long cave with polyethylene glycol 8000. It’s a chemical compound used in everything from toothpaste to meat displayed in grocery stores.
Its purpose as it relates to bats is one of subterfuge,, said Greg Turner, supervisor of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s endangered and non-game mammals section. It tricks white-nose fungus into thinking its environment is drier than it really is.
That doesn’t kill the fungus, he said. But it makes it dormant. It doesn’t grow on bats, thereby killing them.
By spring biologists hope to know whether that worked.
“So we’re anxiously awaiting March to come, to see it we were able to inhibit or block that cycle of infection with the bats,” Turner said.
“Right now, what we’re really hoping is that this is going to help the juveniles survive at this site and we’re going to see positive (bat population) growth.”
In other states, researchers are experimenting with exposing bats to ultraviolet light in concentrations that kill the disease without harming bats.
There’s some evidence that remaining hibernating bats are developing a natural resistance to the fungus, as well.
So there is some hope, said Dan Brauning, wildlife diversity section chief for the Game Commission.
At one time, bald eagles populations across Pennsylvania and the country verged of blinking out, he noted. Over time, though, they grew. Populations continue to grow and expand today.
Bats could conceivably do the same, Brauning said. It just won’t happen quickly.
“It will be a long haul,” he said. “But bald eagles were 40 years, too.”
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