Bats in Danger: White Nose Syndrome Devastates Hibernating Bat Populations

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Is the once-common little brown bat heading for extinction? Photo: USFWS Headquarters / CC by 2.0

Is the once-common little brown bat heading for extinction? Photo: USFWS Headquarters / CC by 2.0

Many people are afraid of bats. They think of them as creepy winged rodents who wander into frightened humans’ hair. Perhaps they suck blood too?

While bats have gotten a bad rap, they’re truly an asset to the ecosystem, and many of our stories about them are rather confused.

Bats are members of the order Chiroptera: they’re not rodents. These winged creatures of the night are out there munching scores of mosquitoes and other pesky bugs.

The bat’s superb ability to navigate through echolocation means that although they look like they’re swooping into your hair, they are much more likely to be eating the mosquito that was about to bite you on the head.

Bats are a beneficial animal whose role in ecosystems is of great benefit to humans and other mammals, since they eat insects that we consider to be pests and vectors of disease.

White Nose Syndrome is a Threat to Bat Species

Unfortunately, common North American bat species are in trouble. There are the usual concerns: lack of spaces to live, for example. Until recent years, these have been concern enough. However, there’s a much larger threat that has the potential to kill entire caves of bats in certain areas. It’s called White Nose Syndrome, and it’s a fungal disease that is spreading across North America.

The first case of white nose syndrome was confirmed in 2006. Since that time, the fungal disease has spread rapidly. Caves in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont are affected, with declines in bat populations of over 75 percent. That’s a devastating loss in a very short time, and there are estimates that in some areas, the disease could impact up to 95 percent of the bats. Nearly 6 million bats have been killed by the disease. A map on the White Nose Syndrome web site shows the extent of the disease.

Why is White Nose Syndrome So Dangerous?

More than half of the bats in the United States must hibernate in the winter, and this is where white nose syndrome becomes fatal. Imagine going to sleep, only to be woken again and again. When you wake up, you’re hungry, so you look for food. The only thing is, there is no food available, and all of the frantic flying has made you hungry.

This is what happens to the bats that have this disease. Behlert et al states that the fungus Geomyces destructans replaces the bats’ hair follicles and erodes the skin on the bat’s ears and wings. The irritation from the fungus wakes them from their winter hibernation, and so they look for food. There is none, so the bats starve to death.

The fungus thrives in exactly the temperature that exists where bats hibernate, so it’s the perfect bat pathogen.

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