|Tri-colored bat w/ white-nose syndrome fungus (NCWRC photo)|
For many, the story of white-nose syndrome's emergence and its affect on hibernating bats didn't begin until popular periodicals like "National Geographic" and "Science" magazines ran articles announcing its discovery and potentially catastrophic consequences.
In truth, WNS was first discovered back in February, 2006 outside Albany, N.Y. A caver there photographed hibernating bats with a mysterious white fungus growing around their muzzles. He also observed several dead bats. The following winter, as bats began returning to their ancestral wintering sites in natural caves and retired mines, the insidious fungus was documented in other locations and the body count rose into the hundreds. Since then, WNS has spread throughout the New England states, south to Tennessee and west to Indiana. More than 1 million bats have perished in five years. Mortality rates in some hibernacula (a big word for caves and mines where bats spend the winter) have been 90 to 100 percent.
Last week, biologists from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission found the state's first WNS cases in a retired mine in Avery County. It was not a surprise, but nevertheless, a dark shadow has descended upon us here in the Old North State.
|Marking the spread of white-nose syndrome in North America. (Pennsylvania Game Commission)|
|A USFWS biologist prepares to enter a bat hibernacula in western NC. (USFWS photo)|
Infected bats typically display non-typical behavior that includes high levels of activity during a period in their life cycle when they should be hibernating, or more accurately, in a state of torpor. For whatever reason, bats with WNS fidget and fly around to the point that energy stores which were supposed to get them through the winter are exhausted and they subsequently die of starvation, exposure, dehydration and/or the damage the fungus does to their thin wing membranes.
The why here and why now are still open to speculation. Since the fungus suspected of causing WNS - an unusual type that prefers cold, high-humidity environment, specifically bat caves - has been preliminarily identified, the same species has also been found in western Europe, where it seems to have a zero-mortality rate on the bats there. The fungus could have been introduced from Europe inadvertently. Another possibility is the fungus could have been here all along but only recently mutated into the deadly pathogen it is today.
|Tri-colored bat in Avery County w/ WNS. (NCWRC photo)|
WNS has already caused serious declines in six types of cave bats. Several species already threatened or endangered are susceptible and other populations, once considered to be healthy, could, in the next few years, potentially fall close to the edge of regional extinction (or worse).
What's all this got to do with you and me? Aside from the very real possibility that this disease could spark a major extinction event in North America bat species already at risk, there are tangible consequences to a world without bats. The bats that are affected are insectivores of the highest order. Some studies suggest bats eat as many as 1,000 mosquitoes an hour. If you enjoy the outdoors (and I suspect you do), fewer bats mean more insect pests - both those that bite and those that destroy crops. The question is, when you're sitting on your porch on a beautiful evening this summer, will you notice you're using more mosquito repellent? As you tend your backyard gardens, will you be tempted to break out the insecticide that you haven't thought of using since you went "organic" so many years ago? Will you look into the night sky and wonder, "What happened to all the bats we used to see?" Or will you notice anything at all?
For more information, click here for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's compilation of research and recommendations. To support bat research and conservation, check out Bat Conservation International.