Conservation: A Disease Could Wipe Out Bats

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White Nose Syndrome

Scientists have been puzzled about a strange disease that began attacking bats in New York state in 2006. The bats would suddenly awaken from hibernation in midwinter, their faces covered in a white fungus. Already weakened, they struggle to find food and die in large numbers. Called white-nose syndrome (WNS), the disease has spread rapidly across the northeastern U.S., has already killed millions of brown bats— and so far scientists have been helpless to do anything about it.

Now a new paper published in the August 5 Science shows that bats n the Northeast may not have much time left. Researchers including Winifred Frick of the University of Santa Cruz and Boston University (BU) and Thomas Kuntz of BU analyzed population data of the little brown bat from the past 30 years and then modeled the impact of the WNS. They found that within 20 years the bat species could be all but wiped out in the Northeast. Here’s what Frick said in a statement:

This is one of the worst wildlife crises we’ve faced in North America. The severity of the mortality and the rapidity of the spread of this disease make it very challenging and distressing. Researchers have been working very hard since it was first discovered four years ago to try to better understand the disease and find potential solutions to the problem.

Sad for bats, but does it matter for us? Yes—even from a purely selfish perspectives. These bat species are insectivore—the little brown myotis can eat the equivalent of its body weight in insects each night—and if you think the Northeastern summers can get buggy now, wait until the bats are gone. The loss of the bats could have an impact on agriculture as well—many of the pests the bats feast upon are known to attack crops.

The culprit is Geomyces destructans, a cold-loving fungus that grows on the nose, wing membranes and ears of affected bats—hence the name of the syndrome. And interestingly, the fungus may be an invasive species, one non-native to North America. Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth notes that genetic data indicates the fungus may have originated in Europe before being carried to North America—where bats had little to no resistance to it.

As Frick and his colleagues note in their Science paper, invasive diseases have repeatedly taken a toll on animal species, whether it’s chytridiomycosis and amphibians, myxomatosis and rabbits, or West Nile virus and North American birds. (The same is true for humans—untold millions of native Americans were wiped out by foreign diseases carried by colonizing Europeans.) Indeed, invasive pathogens and species are on the rise throughout the world, thanks to increasing global trade and the effects of climate change, which mix up habitats and wildlife. That costs the economy—$120 billion a year in the U.S. alone—but it also drains away the biodiversity that makes our planet so special.

As it happens, I’m writing this from Havana—Havana, Illinois—where I’ve come to report on the Redneck Fishing Tournament. Today and tomorrow, particularly brave fishermen will take to the Illinois River to hunt the invasive silver carp, which has a habit of leaping out of the water whenever it’s startled by the sound of a passing motorboat. It’s going to be fun—if potentially dangerous—but the event has a somewhat more serious purpose. Asian carp—which have already established themselves in the Mississippi River system—pose a major threat to the Great Lakes, and there’s a practically a bounty out on the carp. But more on that later…