White-Nose Syndrome

I hate to get all serious, but this is a topic near-and-dear to me, and one that needs more publicity. And while Zooillogix readers are intelligent and well-informed (and smoking hot, I might add), I want to be sure everyone is aware of the progress and potential of this epidemic. Plus, I know I’m not the only batfan here.

In February of 2006, a caver in eastern New York photographed a group of hibernating bats with an unusual white substance on their muzzles. The following winter, bats were noted flying outside of caves months before they typically come out of hibernation. Then there were the reports of unprecedented numbers of sick, dying, and dead bats in and around caves, and investigations confirming mortality rates of over 90% in these hibernacula.

“White-nose syndrome” was born.

As scenes like those below became all too common, scientists began to tackle the mysteries behind this previously unknown phenomenon.

i-6de4185ca6b1d0a39cb834baf4454f40-dead bats inside.jpg i-36d97c5d5109b6b9c4461376d1f9a95f-dead bats outside.jpg

Bats with white-nose syndrome (WNS) are characterized by the presence of a white fungus on their muzzles, ears, and wings. They appear to lose body fat during the winter, perhaps causing them to leave their hibernacula in search of food months before spring brings the insects they require to survive. The result is starvation. Mass starvation, in many cases. Elizabeth Kolbert described the scene in the Aeolus Cave in Vermont,

“The ground is littered with bat bones. There are so many of them- thousands upon thousands – that you can’t take a step without crunching them underfoot.” *

Kolbert joined members of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department during a bat census of the cave. The result? In a cave normally housing over three thousand bats of at least 4 species, the census total came to 112.

Since its discovery four years ago, WNS has continued to spread across the continent. Just last month, both Maryland and Ontario reported their first confirmed cases of WNS. The disease is believed to be spread from one cave to another both by infected bats and by cavers who may carry the fungus on their clothing or gear. In an attempt to prevent the spread of WNS, many private land owners with caves on their properties have put up signs or even barriers to prevent people from going inside. While this may help stem the spread, additional solutions are going to be necessary.

i-1f57a82eb848ba05436b6fe8939279fc-WNSMap04-01-10_CB-DS-thumb-968x1113-44325.jpgThe spread of WNS since 2006.

Although much is still unknown about WNS, scientists at the National Wildlife Health Center have identified the white substance as a previously unknown member of the fungal group Geomyces. This genus represents fungi commonly found in soil and known for their unusual ability to grow and reproduce at temperatures around 40°F. The species involved in WNS, G. destructans, invades the skin and wing of the bat. Sweat glands and hair follicles of infected bats are filled with hyphae, the long branching cell of a fungus in its growth state.

Whether or not the fungal infection is the cause of WNS or simply an opportunistic pathogen remains unclear. Additionally, it is unknown whether G. destructans is a recently introduced species to North America or if it existed prior to the observed devastation of bat colonies. The same fungus has been identified on bats in Europe, but without the emaciation and mortality observed in the U.S. This may mean the fungus originated in Europe, where local bat species developed immunity to the pathogen, or the fungal strain observed in the U.S. is a mutated form of that seen in Europe.

Interestingly, similarities have been noted between the disease process caused by G. destructans and the chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, currently causing a significant worldwide decline in amphibian populations. Others have noted a similar disease course as observed in colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon of yet-to-be-determined origin resulting in a drastic disappearance of honey bee colonies in North America.

Like chytridiomycosis in amphibians and colony collapse disorder in honey bees, white-nose syndrome does not get the attention it deserves in part because it does not cause disease in humans. Adding insult to injury, the all-too-common perception of bats as disease-ridden, flying rats to be feared and avoided does not award them sufficient sympathy. But I remind those people that these amazing little critters can consume 1,000 insects per hour! The U.S. Forest Service estimates that we are already seeing an extra 2.4 million pounds of bugs each year in the absence of the bats that have succumbed to WNS. This means an extra 2.4 million pounds of crop pests and mosquitoes, a number that will continue to grow as more bats die every year. Combined with the growing distribution of insects that serve as vectors for diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and West Nile virus, we could be looking at a very different world in a very short time.

So before things go all armageddon, let’s spread the word that we need our little Chiroptera friends.

i-8e80146cac2af3c685b4f0cc50b8b369-cute bats.jpg

Who could resist a face like this?!

* The New Yorker, March 29, 2010, pg. 42


  1. #1 Catharine
    April 8, 2010

    Yes! I heard about this recently. Great 411. Thanks.

  2. #2 milkshake
    April 8, 2010

    Since they cant do much about colony collapse in bees (which threatens to wipe out the beekeeping industry in US) I don’t have much hope for bats. Eventually resistant strain of bats should emerge. If this gets serious maybe they can import some undead bats from Romania

  3. #3 mousedude
    April 8, 2010

    I work at an upstate new york ecology research institution. I actually went on a bat survey in late winter at a cave (actually an old mine) in upstate NY which normally has several hundred thousand bats, which was in the process of collapsing. one of the largest hibernacula in the northeast (or it used to be)

    There was two feet of snow on the ground, and normally there would be absolutely no active bats that time of year. But there was a more or less constant stream of bats trickling out of the cave, and flying off into the cold. There were none returning. It was really heartbreaking.

    I remember the bat bones started appearing about half a mile from the cave entrance. Mostly just wings. Then we crested the hill and a huge flock of crows, which had been scavenging the dead bats, flew up into the trees and watched us the whole time we were there, waiting for us to leave. It was one of the creepiest experiences in my time as a biologist.

    I had the feeling of witnessing something historically awful, apocalyptic. Like “Silent Spring”, only disturbingly real.

  4. #4 TGIQ
    April 9, 2010

    Yikes! I’ve not heard of this disease, and after bugs, bats are my next favourite critters! I am greatly disheartened to see that it occurs in my province (Ontario). Do we know if it affects certain species only, or is it a generalist killer?

  5. #5 Julia
    April 9, 2010

    Unfortunately, it’s a generalist. There are already several species of endangered bats, like the Virginia big-eared bat, that are most likely facing extinction. The National Zoo is working toward preventing that. More information is here.

    I can only imagine what that must have been like. The USFWS has a WNS blog where you might consider sharing that experience.

  6. #6 ym
    April 9, 2010

    How incredibly sad. I love bats, they’re so cool.

  7. #7 Arachnophile
    April 10, 2010

    Ugh… Yes, you are right. Not enough people know about this. It’s heartbreaking. I put it up there with the nasty contagious cancer that is swiftly wiping out the Tasmanian devils. :(

    Thank you for bringing it to light here. It inspires me to see if I can help support any of the research going on.

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  9. #9 Carol Vinzant
    April 15, 2010

    I hadn’t realized how widespread this had got. Thanks for another great post.

  10. #10 Alice
    April 30, 2010

    blogs of interest I’m watching the impressive work

  11. #11 Carolyn
    February 26, 2011

    Where did you get the photos of the dead bats and the vampire bats (I think they are vampire bats)?

  12. #12 Nakliyat
    April 12, 2011

    yazılar için teşkürler

  13. #13 cambalkon
    June 19, 2011

    que lograban darle una característica, que podía ser tanto convenciese a si mismo sobre la relación entre las mismas.

  14. #14 epoksi zemin kaplama
    June 19, 2011

    “The ground is littered with bat bones. There are so many of them- thousands upon thousands – that you can’t take a step without crunching them underfoot.

  15. #15 açılır çatı
    June 19, 2011

    Thank you for bringing it to light here. It inspires me to see if I can help support any of the research going on.

  16. #16 av tüfekleri
    June 19, 2011

    To scoff at “so-called scientists” in this manner makes about as much sense at scoffing at “so-called pilots” who fly airplanes. People who fly airplanes are pilots, and people who participate in the community of scientific inquiry are scientists. The residents of Espiritu Santo (which probably has a much better name in the local language, so I think that using the lame-ass Spanish name IS an actual example of cultural imperialism, as opposed to your idiotic accusation) certainly do know all sorts of things about their local flora and fauna. Moreover, their collective wisdom and experience about their ecosystem is indeed knowledge. And I’d bet that the investigating scientists relied upon their local guides a great deal, and credit them in their work, and talk incessantly about how awesome they were – because I’ve read lots of papers and listened to a lot of presentations, and my consistent experience is that field researchers both have and display enormous respect for the locals who help them in their research. But none of that changes the fact that the knowledge of the locals is not scientific knowledge if it is (a) isolated from the wider community of scientific inquiry, and (b) not actually scientific in any other discernible way (which, to be honest, is generally the case with local knowledge from *anywhere*, not just isolated, non-Western parts of the world).

  17. #17 otomatik av tüfekleri
    June 19, 2011

    153 scientists from 20 countries participated in the survey of Espiritu Santo in the South Pacific, scouring caves, mountains, reefs, shallows, and forests collecting species. Out of over 10,000 species collected, the researchers are predicting that as many as 2000 may be previously unknown to the scientific community. Some pics from the National Geographic story are below, but we encourage you to visit this article and this article for more in depth descriptions of the creatures.

  18. #18 cambalkon
    June 19, 2011

    While your argument that allowing Abigain Alliance access to Stage II drugs would severely change the structure of FDA approval, I don’t believe your argument of fairness is completely on par with the analogy used to represent it. Right now, there are, of course, certain fundamental unfairnesses in health care based on one’s ability to pay and one’s access to insurance, yet no one concludes that this unfairness is likened to cheating. Furthermore, “cheating”, as defined by http://www.m-w.com, is “to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud.” Abigail Alliance propounded the idea that the right to experimentals after Stage I was a fundamental right, which, by definition, cannot be deprived of ANYONE. If we all would have the same access and ability, it does not follow that this would constitute cheating.

  19. #19 av malzemeleri
    June 19, 2011

    The fact that you define Western science as science itself proves, I think, Bennett’s point.

  20. #20 cambalkon
    June 19, 2011

    I asked my other half last week, “Why don’t sports authorities just say that doping and steroid use is okay and then the playing field will be even. It wouldn’t be cheating then.” I felt somewhat uncomfortable with this but I couldn’t come up with a reason against it. It’s not cheating if everyone’s allowed to do it. It would be like getting laser eye surgery to make your eyes better than 20/20 (I’m looking in your direction Tiger Woods). This was the answer: It’s not about cheating, it’s unfair to all the guys that don’t want to take a dangerous substance to play. That’s it. It’s not about cheating, it’s about the right of all the other guys to play baseball or cycle or whatever without having to take dangerous substances.

  21. #21 cambalkon
    June 19, 2011

    As a clue I should perhaps mention that the 6000 scientists participating in LHC experiment (you might have heard about it) are from 70 different countries.

  22. #22 kıyma makinası
    June 19, 2011

    Thanks for the lead to the very interesting article. As someone who’s got an interest in the phenomenon of professional sports but no desire to watch or follow them (it wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I realized that when my dad took me to ballgames he intended for me to enjoy myself… go figure) I miss out on a lot of interesting data.

  23. #23 hamburger makinası
    June 19, 2011

    Shandooga – you’re such a troll. With the utter miscomprehension of biology and evolutionary theory you’ve displayed over the years, is there really any call for you be on science blogs when you know that no one here will agree with you or appreciate your misguided ID/creationist arguments?

  24. #24 köfte makinası
    June 19, 2011

    Evolution is something that just happens. The animals that had traits better suited to survival in this environment lived long enough to pass on these traits to their offspring. In many instances, one of these traits it something that is referred to as ‘camouflage’.

  25. #25 yılmazlar et
    June 19, 2011

    Oh, and for the idiot who thought the locals already knew about these creatures. I highly doubt they were aware of creatures found 150 meters under the water offshore.

  26. Sean, shame on you for the LOBSTAAAAA song that is now stuck in my head. But I think that was in my Karma (from last time I mentioned the Rock Lobsta!).

  27. #27 kuşbaşı makinası
    June 19, 2011

    I hate capers too! And I hate anybody who’s willing to have anything to do with them. And while I’m at it, I suggest we take down the Bleiman brothers for providing a forum for their mention.

  28. #28 kemik kesme
    June 19, 2011

    If any animal has a real shot at comeing back from extinction, my money’s on the Cheetah or some other well-preserved animal that we have modern samples from… not from an animla that’s been extinct for 100+ years and we’re hoping some fragments of recovered DNA will be viable.

  29. #29 kemik testeresi
    June 19, 2011

    Oh, and one other thing. I’m no tree-hugger, indeed I’m fairly easily annoyed by some sorts of environmentalist. But even so, your use of “greentard” tells me pretty reliably that you have nothing to say worth listening to.

  30. #30 çankırı
    June 19, 2011

    “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’” – Matthew 23:16.

  31. #31 mad the swine
    June 19, 2011

    Wow. Who would have thought that the first programs to pass the Turing test would be spambots?

  32. #32 Emily
    June 19, 2011

    I think the only reason they’re realistic is that they’re stealing text from posts/comments by real human beings.

  33. #33 Luna_the_cat
    June 19, 2011

    Emily is right, the standard MO for this brand of spambot is to troll through a variety of forums and steal random text from actual forum posts by real human beings.

    Definite need to spray for pests, here.

    …On an on-topic note, has anyone gotten a sample from the related European fungus and tried assays, or even microscopy examinations of spores, that kind of thing, to see if they are the same? If they were the same fungus, then might it be worth looking for antibodies in the blood of bats here (by here, I mean UK/Europe) as a starting point for possible treatments for bats in the US? Find an antibody, and you can often find what the antibody binds to. Find what the antibody binds to, you might be able to find a way to distill that into a vaccine. This may not work — there are an awful lot of situations where it doesn’t — but it could be worth a shot.

    Because it does sound like people should try something other than just not helping the fungus spread. As control measures go, I’ve never seen “try not to help it spread” be successful on its own.

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