19 October 2010

Syndrome caused by fungus killing bats in Northeast

A mysterious disease called white nose syndrome is having a devastating impact on the bat population in the northeast. The disease is caused by a fungus and has killed an estimated half million bats from New England to Virginia since 2006. Now state and federal agencies are ramping up their efforts to combat the disease and to prevent its spread to other states and bat populations.

Bats do more than just scare the dickens out of us on Halloween, or basically any other day of the week. They play a vital ecological role by acting as a natural pesticide, consuming mosquitoes and other insects that consume crops. Bats also act as pollinators.

The disease is called white nose syndrome because the fungus that causes it leaves white smudges on the noses and wings of infected bats. The fungus does not kill the bats but it disrupts their sleep so they wake up from hibernation before winter is over. The early risers can’t find food and starve to death.

State and Federal agencies are concentrating on barring access to caves as well as enacting special decontamination protocols to prevent spores from being carried between caves on visitors’ shoes and clothing.

So far The United States Forest Service has closed all its caves in the Eastern and Southern U.S. and has proposed to close off abandoned mines in several states. Additionally, caves in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and South Dakota have also been closed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has awarded $1.6 million in grants to research the syndrome and control its spread. The grant money will be used in part to develop an anti fungal drug, similar to those used for athlete’s foot, to increase survival rates for bats during hibernation.

Robin Lawless | @robmlaw
Robin lives in NYC with her cat Maggie where she follows a vegetarian lifestyle, practices yoga, and volunteers at Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Follow Robin on Facebook

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/kevin_matteson