Close-up of infected bat nose, Ryan von Linden/NYDEC
White-nose syndrome struck New York bats first in 2006 and it’s done the most damage here. If it kills off as many bats in the areas where it is just reaching as it does here, some species are in real trouble.
“It’s about as bad as it could get,” says Alan Hicks, the bat expert at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “Right now were running somewhere around 95% mortality. Some specis have disappeared completley from a number of sites.”
Little brown bat; fungus on dorsal surface of wing and tail membranes, NYDEC
The journal Science just reported that at least one species, the most common one, the little brown bat, will almost certainly become extinct in the northeast in 16 years.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is tracking the inexorable spread, which now reaches to Oklahoma, Ontario and Tennessee. The wildlife service just ordered caves closed to people as far west as Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.
So far there’s no population of bats that’s immune to the disease, Hicks says, but species have different levels of vulnerability.
The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) and northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) are hit the worst, followed by the tri-colored or eastern Eastern pipistrelle (Perimyotis subflavus). The least impacted are the small-footed bat (Myotis leibii) and the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), which is endangered for other reasons. Since the largely tree-dwelling big brown bat is the most common bat in New York City, we may not even notice down here yet, Hicks says.
The current thinking is that the disease is related to something from Europe. When Hicks got the first pictures in 2006, he sent then out to colleagues around the world asking if they had seen anything like it. “From all across North America, it was ‘No, I’ve never seen anything like this.'” he says. “From Europe I heard, “‘Yeah, I’ve seen that.'” Since then genetic testing confirms the link.
The bats only catch the disease while hibernating in a cave, he says. In the spring they emerge and the fungus eventually eats through their wings and they die. While individual bats can be treated, there’s no way to keep up as the disease wipes out colonies. An individual wildlife rehabilitator like June Kasminoff, who gave a talk on the disease recently,
has a lot of work and expense taking care of 15 bats, Hicks says. “You would need half a million rehabbers. No matter how many rehabbers you had, you wouldn’t ever have enough to make a difference.”
White nose syndrome map, FWS