By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern
It has devastated bat colonies around the country causing widespread death with no known cure. According to biologists, white nose syndrome has caused “the most precipitous wildlife decline in the past century of North America.” There is 100 percent mortality in some colonies and it could possibly lead to the extinction of some bat species.
White nose syndrome is a disease that has spread through the northeastern to central United States at a distressing rate. The disease is identified by the white fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, that infects the skin on the nose, mouth, ears and wings of bats in hibernation with a white fuzzy growth. During hibernation, bats also display abnormal behaviors such as moving closer towards to the cave opening and waking up and flying during the day. These abnormal behaviors contribute to the early usage of the excess fat they store for the winter months in order to insulate them from the frigid temperatures. Exhausting their fat storage prematurely leads to emaciation and starvation.
White nose syndrome was first documented in 2006 in a cave in New York. Since then, the disease has eradicated more than 5.7 million bats. Species infected include the little brown bat, northern long-eared bat, eastern small-footed bat, Indiana bat, Gray bat, tricolored bat and the big brown bat. The syndrome is transmitted through bat-to-bat contact or infected environment-to-bat contact. Humans can also disseminate the fungus into new areas by using infected clothing and climbing gear and transferring it to a new cave, mine or roost.
White nose syndrome was discovered within Michigan’s borders in April 2014. It was found in three counties: Alpena, Dickinson and Mackinac. Five little brown bats were collected in February and March that showed signs of the disease. White nose syndrome was diagnosed in the bats by Michigan State University’s Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health, in cooperation with the DNR Wildlife Disease Laboratory.
At this point, there is no effective cure for the disease. Even if there was, there is no practical way to administer the treatment for the millions of bats that are affected by white nose syndrome. The loss of bats due to white nose syndrome could have a negative impact on the agricultural and commercial forestry business in Michigan. Bats consume an incredibly large amount of insects that can be harmful to crops and trees. With the bat populations at high risk for contracting white nose syndrome, a large wipe-out of the species could result in an overabundance of insects and crop damaging bugs, causing these businesses to suffer.
There have been, and there still are, large efforts and research being done for white nose syndrome. the USGS National Wildlife Health Center along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts studies that have led to the discovery, characterization and the naming of the causing agent to the disease, as well as the development of the criteria for diagnosing white nose syndrome. They have also developed lab techniques to be able to study the impacts of the fungus on hibernating bats. To determine if bats are affected by white nose syndrome, there are specific signs that scientists look for. They look for a characteristic microscopic pattern of skin erosion. This includes the white fungal growth on the bats’ muzzle or wing tissue.
In 2010, the Department of Natural Resources and the agency’s federal and non-governmental partners developed Michigan’s White Nose Syndrome Response Plan. The plan has two main parts: 1) prevent the arrival of the fungus as long as possible by lessening the human-assisted movement of the fungus that causes the disease; and 2) conserve whatever bat populations remain after the disease has arrived by preserving abandoned underground mines and caves.
There are many ways you can help and become active in the cause. By reporting usual behavior or dead bats to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, you can help track the movement of the disease. Some unusual behavior includes bats flying during the day when they should be hibernating, bats roosting in sunlight or on the outside of structures and bats unable to fly or struggling to get off the ground. Other things to do include minimizing disturbances around the natural habitat, such as minimizing outdoor lighting and tree clearing, constructing bat homes and avoid entering bat caves, especially during the winter months.