White-nose syndrome (WNS) has decimated the bat population in the eastern U.S. since 2006. There are no solutions yet, but there are reasons for hope. Nina Fascione, executive director of Bat Conservation International, gives an update on the disease.

Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome. Photo courtesy Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation

White-nose syndrome (WNS) has decimated the bat population in the eastern U.S. There are no solutions yet, but there are reasons for hope. Nina Fascione, executive director of Bat Conservation International, gives an update on the disease:

Small, brown bodies, some dismembered by predators, are piled by the hundreds across the snow outside the cave entrance. Inside, carcasses litter the cave floor. Some are frozen solid to icy stalagmites. Such scenes have been greeting bat biologists at caves throughout the eastern United States for five winters now. When white-nose syndrome (WNS) sweeps through a colony of hibernating bats, the results are horrific. Mortality often exceeds 90 percent.

WNS has killed well over one million bats since appearing in a single New York cave in the winter of 2006. Each spring has brought word of new species and new states facing what biologists describe as the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in the past century.

And all of us are paying a steep environmental and economic price. Bats are primary predators of night-flying insects, including many that carry disease, attack farm crops and backyard gardens and damage forests. A study published in the journal Science concluded that bats save American farmers billions of dollars each year by reducing crop damage and limiting the need for pesticides.

For those who have devoted their lives to studying and conserving these remarkable flying mammals, white-nose syndrome has an even higher pricetag. “To watch these bats die by the thousands rips a hole in your soul that is hard to understand,” says Mylea Bayless, WNS Response Coordinator at Bat Conservation International.

WNS is now confirmed in 17 states and four Canadian provinces. It covers New England and reaches into North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana. The fungus that is the likely cause of WNS – and which gave the disease its name by powdering the faces and wings of infected bats – has been found in Missouri and Oklahoma, the gateway to the West. The disease itself has not been detected in those states.

Some Good News

Despite tireless effort, scientists are still unable to cure the disease or slow its spread. But there’s a hint of good news: Scientists reported this year that although hibernating colonies suffered losses of up to 90 percent in the two years after WNS struck, the diminished populations seem to have stabilized – at least for now. These reports suggest that survivors may, in fact, recover and could perhaps re-establish these battered populations and avoid extinctions.

Bats are long-lived for their size, often with lifespans of 20 years or more, but they reproduce very slowly. Females generally give birth to a single pup each year. Decimated bat populations will need many years to recover.

WNS affects bats during hibernation. The afflicted arouse frequently through the winter, and each time they awaken, they burn through fat they need to survive. Bats at WNS-infected caves are often seen flying around in daytime in midwinter, apparently hunting for insects that won’t return until spring. They freeze or starve, leaving emaciated bodies in or near their hibernation caves.

As with most wildlife diseases, solutions are tough to find. Fungicides will kill the WNS fungus, but they would also destroy entire cave ecosystems, which are rich with diverse, often-rare organisms.

Bat Conservation International’s White-nose Syndrome Response Program has been supporting critical research on WNS since 2008. We were key organizers and funders of a series of annual WNS Science Strategy Meetings that brought together scientists and wildlife managers to share research results and set priorities.

Our funding efforts are focused now on carefully targeted priorities and on the emerging WNS national strategy. BCI works closely with federal, state and private groups to plan and implement WNS monitoring and mitigation efforts. We also meet with members of Congress and their aides and testify before congressional committees about the urgent need for federal funding to deal with White-nose syndrome before it is too late.

How You Can Help

  • Urge state and federal lawmakers to provide funds for the fight against WNS.
  • Report unusual winter bat behavior (such as bats flying during the daytime) or unexplained bat deaths to your state wildlife agency.
  • Abide by federal, state and local cave closures to avoid transmitting the WNS fungus.