Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitators Association
Fungus that targets bats 'very scary'
Wildlife officials fear ecological disaster could result from disease affecting nocturnal mammals
By Bob Downing, Beacon Journal staff writer, POSTED: 02:24 p.m. EST, Jan 21, 2010
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION AKRON BEACON JOURNAL
The Ohio Rehabilitator, Issue 1, 2010
A mysterious fungus is killing hibernating bats at an alarming rate on the East Coast, and the disease with no known remedy is getting closer to Ohio.
The so-called ''white-nose syndrome'' has not been found in Ohio's bat caves, but wildlife officials fear that could happen soon.
Metro Parks, Serving Summit County monitored five caves that 100,000 hibernating bats used at Liberty Park in northern Summit County last winter and has made one check this winter. No sign of the fungus was found, said Michael Johnson, chief of resource management.
He called what's happening to the bats ''very scary.''
In the past four years, the fungus has killed in excess of 1 million wintering bats at 80 sites in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, New England states, New Jersey and Virginia. It spread 450 miles last winter.
''This mortality represents the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife caused by infectious diseases in recorded history,'' said Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, in a December appraisal.
Bat Conservation International, a Texas-based grass-roots group, calls the disease ''a crisis for bats'' and a major threat to all American bats.
The largest bat states are Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama undefined with the fungus seemingly moving in that direction.
Some experts say they fear the fungus, new to science, could push some American bat species to extinction.
Sleeman's agency is investigating the syndrome along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies where the fungus has struck and university researchers.
Ohio State University biology professor W. Mitchell Masters said the disease is ''potentially really devastating . . . and could be a major ecological disaster for bats and everything that depends on them.''
Right now, there is nothing that can be done to halt the spread of the disease or to help the affected bats because ''so little is known'' about white-nose syndrome, said Keith Lott, a bat expert with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Ohio undefined home to 11 bat species undefined is keeping a close eye on the disease because of the threat it could pose to the endangered Indiana bat that has a large hibernation colony in Southwest Ohio, Lott said.
Hibernating bats have been found with visually striking white fungal clumps on their faces and wings. The fungus causes the skin to erode and leaves ulcers.
Researchers are unsure whether the pale, powdery fungus is the disease itself or a symptom of it.
Many of the bats that die are emaciated and have no body fat. They had left their hibernation caves during the winter, several months earlier than usual.
The syndrome triggers other erratic behavior, such as bats clustering at colder cave entrances and the nocturnal mammals flying during the day.
Mortality has been in excess of 90 percent in many caves.
There are 45 bat species in the United States. They are valued as the top predators of night-flying insects.
One bat can devour 600 mosquitoes or moth-sized insects a night.
They also are valued pollinators.
The decline in bats is expected to result in a jump in some pest insect species, including mosquitoes. It is estimated that the 1 million bats that died would have consumed nearly 700 tons of insects in a season.
The disease strikes bats as they hibernate in caves between mid-October and mid-April.
Bats are very vulnerable to disease during hibernation because they congregate in large numbers in caves. Clusters of up to 300 bats per square foot can be found in some locations.
At least six species have been affected, according to federal agencies. The disease's ''unprecedented mortalities'' threaten all bats, Sleeman's center said in a statement.
A 2009 study in New York, Massachusetts and Vermont showed that on average 91 percent of the bats in infected caves were wiped out.
Three species undefined little brown bats, Northern long-eared bats and Eastern pipistrelles undefined could disappear from the Northeast in the next few years, some experts predict.
Most bat species only produce one offspring, called a pup, per year, so rebounding from the disease won't be easy, experts said.
Bats typically live about 10 to 20 years.
The microscopic fungus is believed to be transmitted primarily from bat to bat.
There is no evidence of humans being at risk, the federal agencies report. It is possible, however, that humans inadvertently could transmit the fungus from cave to cave on clothing or gear.
That's why an estimated 2,000 caves and old mines on federal land in Ohio and 32 other states in the eastern United States were declared off limits last spring to keep the fungus from spreading. That caving ban continues.
The fungus, which appears to thrive in cold and humid conditions, first was found near Albany, N.Y., in February 2006, after a recreational caver photo-documented afflicted bats. It has spread to eight other states.
The little brown bat undefined one of the most abundant bat species in Ohio undefined has been especially hard hit by the syndrome. That may be because it likes cool, moist caves undefined where the fungus thrives.
Some bat species that prefer drier caves appear to be doing better.
Bats gather for the winter in large colonies in caves and abandoned mines and might visit several caves at that time. They fatten up on insects over the summer before beginning their hibernation.
During hibernation, they reduce their body temperatures for two weeks. They then warm up briefly to drink, mate and reboot their immune system before cooling down again.
European scientists have begun tracking a similar fungus that has affected bats there for 20 years undefined with no reported deaths. Tests are under way to determine if the fungus is the same.