Another serial killer is loose in the American West.
A lethal fungus devastating U.S. bat populations in the East and Midwest has crossed the Continental Divide for the first time, unexpectedly popping up in Washington—approximately 2000 kilometers farther west than previously seen.
The discovery of white-nose syndrome in a single, sickly little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) found in mid-March by hikers at the edge of the Cascade mountains, 50 kilometers east of Seattle, is confirmation of what scientists considered the inevitable spread of the disease across the continent. “This is a nightmare scenario come true,” says Jeremy Coleman, an ecologist and head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s white-nose syndrome program in Hadley, Massachusetts. “This is the news we have been bracing for and warning about going back for the last 8 years.”
But the syndrome’s appearance in the far northwest corner of the country, announced Thursday by state and federal wildlife agencies, came as a surprise. In recent years, it had only reached as far west as Minnesota and Nebraska, after an orderly march across the continent from its start in upstate New York.
More from the joint statement [PDF] of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.s. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey:
First seen in North America in the winter of 2006/2007 in eastern New York, WNS has now spread to 28 states and five Canadian provinces. USGS microbiologist David Blehert first identified the unknown fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which causes the disease. WNS is named for the fuzzy white fungal growth that is sometimes observed on the muzzles of infected bats. The fungus invades hibernating bats’ skin and causes damage, especially to delicate wing tissue, and physiologic imbalances that can lead to disturbed hibernation, depleted fat reserves, dehydration and death.
“This finding in a far-western location is unfortunately indicative of the challenges we face with the unpredictability of WNS,” said Suzette Kimball, director of the USGS. “This underscores the critical importance of our work to develop tools for early detection and rapid response to potentially devastating wildlife diseases.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leads the national WNS response effort, working with state and federal partners to respond to the disease. The Service’s National White-nose Syndrome Coordinator Jeremy Coleman said the first step will be to conduct surveillance near where the bat was found to determine the extent of WNS in the area. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is responsible for bat management and conservation in Washington and will coordinate surveillance and response efforts.
WDFW veterinarian Katie Haman said the disease is transmitted primarily from bat to bat, although people can carry fungal spores on their clothing, shoes or caving gear.
Here’s a brief video from a U.S. Forestry Service Southern Research Station biologist:
Slowing the Spread of White Nose Syndrome in Bats
Research Wildlife Biologist, Roger Perry describes the history, spread and efforts to prevent the disease, White Nose Syndrome in bats.
For more details on the disease, there’s a longer video report here.
So why should we care about the fate of a creature so often linked with the dark side of nature?
Well, it’s because bats get a bad rap.
From Bat Conservation International:
The Earth without bats would be a very different and much poorer place. More than 1,300 species of bats around the world are playing ecological roles that are vital to the health of natural ecosystems and human economies.
Many of the more than 1,300 bat species consume vast amounts of insects, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests. Others pollinate many valuable plants, ensuring the production of fruits that support local economies, as well as diverse animal populations. Fruit-eating bats in the tropics disperse seeds that are critical to restoring cleared or damaged rainforests. Even bat droppings (called guano) are valuable as a rich natural fertilizer. Guano is a major natural resource worldwide, and, when mined responsibly with bats in mind, it can provide significant economic benefits for landowners and local communities.
Bats are often considered “keystone species” that are essential to some tropical and desert ecosystems. Without bats’ pollination and seed-dispersing services, local ecosystems could gradually collapse as plants fail to provide food and cover for wildlife species near the base of the food chain. Consider the great baobab tree of the East African savannah. It is so critical to the survival of so many wild species that it is often called the “African Tree of Life.” Yet it depends almost exclusively on bats for pollination. Without bats, the Tree of Life could die out, threatening one of our planet’s richest ecosystems.
And a companion video from Bat Conservation International:
We Need Bats & Bats Need Us
Bat Conservation International (www.batcon.org) created this video to illustrate the ways in which the health of our planet depends upon the environmental services provided by bats.
The welfare of global bat populations depends on conservation actions that everyone can take on a daily basis. Bats are often harmed because people believe myths and misinformation that have been spread for centuries. Watch this educational video and join us in saving bats!