On April 6, 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced seven grant awards totaling approximately $1.4 million to continue the investigation of white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats, and to identify ways to manage it. Bats play a critical role in the ecosystems that they inhabit, including farmer’s fields, giving them a key place in agriculture and the U.S. economy. White-nose syndrome has killed more than 5.5 million bats in eastern North America and has spread rapidly across the United States and into Canada since it was first detected in 2006. The disease is named for a white fungus that appears on the bat’s nose and wings.
Jeremy Coleman is national NWS coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the interview below, originally recorded in October 2010, he said the fungus thrives in the cold and damp of caves and mines. He said:
This particular fungus appears to affect bats when they are hibernating, in the winter time.
That’s trouble, come spring and summer, because bats are a natural pesticide for crops. A bat eats its own body weight in insects. Dr. Coleman said White nose syndrome is spread primarily from bat to bat, but he and other scientists suspect that people visiting a cave might carry it on their shoes or gear to other caves. Coleman said:
We don’t have much in our toolkit at this point, to manage the disease, other than trying to slow the spread of it through human movements.
Caves across the U.S. are being closed in hopes of protecting hibernating bats. Under consideration, Coleman said, is treating bats with an anti-fungal – like an athlete’s foot medication. He also said:
This is probably not a long term fix because anti fungal compounds are particularly nasty, and have potential side effects for other species
One of the most heavily hit bat species is called the little brown bat, which might be lost to the Northeast U.S. in as few as 15 years. He added:
The species itself is not necessarily going to be extinct because it will be in other parts of – in this case – North America. But in the parts affected by white-nose syndrome, the species will be gone. There may be very small remnant population that will be around for the short term, but it will not be a large enough population to sustain the species over the long term. Functionally, it will be extinct.
Coleman said that the type of drug scientists have spoken about is an anti-fungal drug – the kind of drug we would use for athlete’s foot.
Coleman added that the most important element of saving the bat species into the future is conserving a population large enough to breed and eventually recover their numbers. He’s concerned that treating bats in a lab – where the cave’s environment wouldn’t be affected – might not be worth it. Coleman said:
Anything that could be planned or done with an anti-fungal compound, we would have to be able to do it on a large enough scale that we would be sustaining the population, not just individual bats.
White-nose syndrome originated in New York State in 2006, and it has been spotted as far away as Missouri and Oklahoma. Coleman’s agency is working with other agencies and organizations concerned about bats to create a national response to the disease.
Bottom line: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on April 6, 2012 that it had awarded seven grant awards totaling approximately $1.4 million to continue the investigation of white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats, and to identify ways to manage it. White-nose syndrome has killed more than 5.5 million bats across North America since 2006.