Bats Under Attack White Nose Syndrome Is Killing Bats and Poses a Major Financial Burden and Environmental Threat
A catastrophic plague called white nose syndrome (WNS) has killed over a million bats in the U.S. and Canada. The condition was first discovered in upstate New York in 2006, but quickly spread across the northeast and into Canada. The plague leaves a distinct white fungus along the muzzles, wings and ears of bats it infects.According to studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, WNS causes uncharacteristic behavior in bats during their hibernating winter months including flying outside during the daytime. That extra flying uses up the fat reserves bats need to survive hibernation. With no insects yet out for them to eat, they lose strength and starve or freeze to death. Some caves are seeing 100% mortality rates.
Wildlife officials have reported cases of WNS across midwest and southern states, including Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina and Kentucky. This is especially grave news for farmers who rely on bats as a natural pesticide. A bat can consume 1,000 insects in an hour and almost its body weight in insects in a night. A study published this past April in the journal Science estimated the value of bats’ pest control services in the U.S. from $3.7 billion to $53 billion.
The U.S. Forest Service projects that the spread of WNS will leave at least 2.4 million pounds of bugs uneaten, posing a financial burden to farmers, which in turn could increase grocery prices and the use of harmful pesticides.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) has recommended the closing of bat caves across the nation and advises all cave explorers to disinfect clothing and equipment with Lysol before and after entering caves. Though antifungal creams have worked effectively in lab tests against the fungus, spraying these substances in caves is not approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and may be hazardous to aquifers and other cave wildlife. Such creams could adversely affect “nontarget species,” says biologist Jeremy Coleman, Ph.D., USFWS’s national WNS coordinator. If WNS continues to progress, Coleman says scientists may consider “captive holding,” in which bats are caught and held in a secure location that can be kept fungus-free.