Across America, the population of bats face a potentially fatal threat in the form of an infectious disease termed the “White Nose Syndrome”, or simply WNS. Since first being discovered in New York in 2006, WNS has spread rapidly, from cave to cave where bats hibernate, from New York to as far out Tennessee, Oklahoma and Canada. Bat deaths in America associated with WNS have reached millions and scientists are still searching for clues about what causes it – let alone how to stop it.
Bats infected with WNS can be identified through a distinct growth of white fungus on their muzzles and wings (hence the name). Bats with WNS lose fat rapidly and don’t have enough stored strength to survive winter hibernation. They are found to exhibit uncharacteristic behavior during cold winter months including flying outside in the day and clustering together.
Several species of bats face the threat of extinction and reversing steep population drops will be very tough or impossible because bats have a slow reproductive cycle and typically give birth to one pup a year. The decline of bat population from WNS affects the ecology and humans in a number of ways. Bats are natural predators of insects and pests, and play an important role in controlling crop destruction by acting as nature’s pesticide – a single little brown bat eats up to 1,000 insects an hour. With a possible rise in insects population, pest control expenses may rise and crop prices along with it. Bats also help control mosquito population and help reduce mosquito-borne diseases. Unfortunately, since bats are not considered “sexy” enough to study, there is little scientific research that addresses their overall role in our ecosystem and the potential domino effects of losing them.
Researchers continue to exert effort to understand, prevent and treat the disease. Though lack of funding still hampers these efforts. Agencies continue to track caves and bat colonies with WNS in order to isolate the disease, and it has been found that the fungus has responded to treatment with anti-fungal medicine. Knowledge on how to apply this treatment to bats will be key in helping cure the disease. According to this recent article, some Health Department researchers have identified “safe chemical compounds” that can help fight off the cottony white substance that develops around an infected bat’s snout and wings.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services website offers a host of great tips on what we can do to help. We have listed a few below but please go to the website to get further details.
- Stay out of caves and mines where bats are known – or suspected – to hibernate (hibernacula) in all states.
- Honor cave closures and gated caves.
- Report unusual bat behavior to your state natural resource agency, including bats flying during the day when they should be hibernating or roosting in sunlight on the outside of structures or bats unable to fly or struggling to get off the ground.
- If bats are in your home and you don’t want them there, work with your local natural resource agency to exclude or remove them without hurting them.
- Some states and organizations sponsor bat emergence counts or other activities. Contact your state natural resource agency or local conservation groups for volunteer opportunities