Bats hanging in the balance: Fungal infection threatens fate of millions
January 17, 2013
- ...the real dread concerning hibernating bats is a fatal disease called White Nose Syndrome; named for the white fungus evident on the muzzles and wings of affected bats. WNS is responsible for killing more than six million bats in the eastern United States in a little over seven years.
- "The most difficult part about this disease is where it may crop up next. The hardest part is not knowing -- not knowing what we may be dealing with four counties over and how that will affect us here on Fort Campbell." - Fort Campbell Wildlife Program Manager Gene Zirkle
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- United States Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center - White Nose Syndrome
- Fort Campbell
- 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)
- Fort Campbell Courier
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (January 17, 2013) -- When most people think of bats, they picture creepy little flying creatures that terrify small villages; leaving a trail of chaos, destruction and death in their wake. We are all familiar with at least one scary bat movie. Seeing the flash of their menacing fangs or hearing the swooshing of a thousand bat wings can create a true feeling of dread. But the real dread concerning hibernating bats is a fatal disease called White Nose Syndrome; named for the white fungus evident on the muzzles and wings of affected bats. WNS is responsible for killing more than six million bats in the eastern United States in a little over seven years.
WNS was first reported in the New York area in late 2006. The fungus that causes WNS is suspected to have been brought from Europe by cavers. The disease then spread rapidly through the eastern part of the United States.
Fort Campbell Wildlife Program Manager Gene Zirkle said, "The most difficult part about this disease is where it may crop up next. The hardest part is not knowing -- not knowing what we may be dealing with four counties over and how that will affect us here on Fort Campbell."
Death from WNS is quite traumatic for the bat. According to Fort Campbell Endangered Species Coordinator Amie Lehman, the fungus that causes WNS is an irritant and this irritant causes the bat to scratch. The scratching wakes the bat during hibernation. The bats then lose their fat reserves, which they need to survive hibernation, long before the winter is over. They often leave their hibernacula during the winter and die.
The first sign that WNS had touched the Fort Campbell footprint was in March of 2010. Fort Campbell Endangered Species Biologist Morgan Kurz discovered WNS in a nearby cave.
"I was working on my thesis for Austin Peay," Kurz said. "I was conducting cave surveys just to see what chambers of Dunbar Cave the bats were using, the male to female sex ratios and age classes. And there he was." This was the first reported case of WNS in Montgomery County, Tenn.
Fort Campbell was the first military installation to report WNS within its boundaries, according to Zirkle.
"February 2012 was first sign of White Nose Syndrome on Fort Campbell. The cave where the affected bats live is now gated, locked and closed to the general public. The only access is done by wildlife specialists," he said.
According to Zirkle, the closing of infected caves is controlled by the state.
"Once the state confirms WNS in a cave that cave is immediately closed to the general public," he said.
Bats with WNS were found in four bunkers on Fort Campbell in March of 2012. Those bunkers are also closed to the public.
WNS is spread either by the bats themselves or by people who explore caves.
"Bats are very social and cluster together. Bats will also use one cave today and a different cave tomorrow, so a bat that has contracted WNS will transfer the diseases to other caves," Zirkle said. "People spread the disease by getting the fungus on their clothing or caving equipment and when they enter another cave, they pass on the fungus to more bats."
"There's very specific protocols to exploring caves, especially caves in WNS infected areas. This is where awareness to Soldiers comes in. When they go into these caves, they aren't thinking about what they are transferring," he added.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers the following advice to help prevent the spread of WNS. Cavers should observe all cave closures and advisories and avoid caves, mines or passages containing hibernating bats to minimize disturbance to the bats. The Service asks that cavers and cave visitors stay out of all caves in the affected states and adjoining states to help slow the potential spread of WNS.
"There is no easy fix to stopping the spread of WNS," Lehman stated.
"You can't go in and just fog a fungicide in the cave because you will be killing the good fungus along with the bad, which is just as detrimental to the cave ecosystems as WNS is to bats."
"But we can't afford to lose our bats population to WNS either," Kurz added. "Bats are a natural form of insect control, and the loss of the bats will directly affect human life. If we lose our bat population, then produce prices will increase because farmers are having to spend more to kill crop damaging insects -- insects that the bat would otherwise keep in check."
Awareness is the first step to slowing and maybe even stopping the spread of WNS. For more information on WNS visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website at www.fws.gov/.
The United States Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, dedicated to advancing the health of the ecosystem, also features information on the emergence of the disease at www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/white-nose_syndrome/.