Bats are often feared and even more often misunderstood. Bats in the United States, however, are under attack but not from the most likely sources but from a fungal disease. Soon people on the East Coast may not even have to fear bats at all as they may not even exist there in two decades.
While bats are often seen as pests, they actually play a pivotal role in the ecosystems where they reside. There are approximately 1,000 bat species, which is nearly a quarter of all mammalian species discovered to this point. Bats play major roles in insect control and as pollinators, roles which are often forgotten but result in significant savings for farmers. However, it may become glaringly obvious if bat species population numbers plummet.
The fungal pathogen is called Geomyces destructans and is being found naturally in the environment. The fungus prefers damp, dark locales, just like bats. The fungus has been traced to Europe and entered the United State either from something as simple as someone’s shoe or from an accidentally shipped bat. The fungus causes symptoms such as a white-nose, which is why the fungal infections have been called white-nose syndrome.
Bats with white-nose syndrome have a tell-tale white nose, and sometimes white patches on their wins, ears or tails. Bats experience weight loss from the infection and have been known to develop odd behaviors, such as flying during the day. Now new estimates about the decimation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been released, estimating that at least 5.7 million bats have died from the fungal infection. This is spread over nineteen states and four Canadian provinces, all located in eastern North America. A decrease in bat populations in the northeastern portion of the U.S. is thought to be at least eighty percent.
While the fungus is not harmful to humans, it has been shown to infect multiple kinds of bats, including little brown, big brown, northern long-eared and Indiana bats. Scientists have found that upwards of ninety-nine percent of bats which become infected die. The estimates for the number of bats thus far killed, 5.7 million, are thought to be conservative and likely higher.
Scientists fear that the disease could wipe out all bats in eastern North America within twenty years. Scientists have yet to determine how to stop the spread of the fungus or to help bats become resistant. Due to the spreading disease, the U.S. Forest Service will be closing caves in the Northern Rockies. However, recent news indicates that unless a cure is discovered most if not all of the twenty-six bat species in the U.S. may be at risk of population decimation or even extinction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that the fungal disease has officially spread to yet another species, making it a total of seven species impacted thus far. The new species affected is the gray bat as some members of the species have recently been found with the disease in Tennessee. Thus far the service has not indicated that there have been deaths in any of the gray bats, although the disease often takes time to kill its victims.
Since 1976 gray bats have been protected under the Endangered Species Act due to their vulnerable status for extinction. Prior to this announcement the species was stabilizing and growing towards previous levels. The current population is estimated to be 4 million bats. However, with the spread of the fungal disease to the species it is likely that the population will see a significant drop in numbers. This is especially true due to gray bats preferring large clusters which can include even a quarter of a million individuals.
This latest news in the bat fungal disease saga has alarmed scientists who are still searching for the elusive cure.