Such is the devastation caused by white nose syndrome that the 90% die-off reported in some caves that once were filled with hibernating bats is considered "hopeful."
A new report by New York Department of Environmental Conservation, which first identified white nose syndrome in 2006, describes a bleak future for bats, as we enter the fifth winter since the disease was first encountered. Based on surveys early this year, bats in 32 caves and mines in New York every cave surveyed were infected with the disease. In all likelihood, every cave or mine harboring bats in New York State is infected, according to officials.
At a former graphite mine in the town of Hague, located on Lake George in the Adirondacks, the largest colony of bats in the state has been reduced drastically. Two species the northern bat and the Indiana bat (an endangered species) are no longer found there, a single tri-colored bat was found, and the once-abundant little brown bats have been reduced from a population of 185,000 to just 2,000.
The caves that still have 10% of their original populations "represent the most hopeful results in an otherwise negative report," in the words of DEC bat biologist Carl Herzog. Statewide, little brown bats, northern bats and tri-colored bats have seen 90% population declines, while Indiana bats have declined 60%.
What causes the disease, which is marked by a ring of white fungus around the bats' noses? Is it a change in the environment? A virus? A chemical poison?
As with colony collapse disorder, that mysterious malady causing honeybees to inexplicably flee their hives, the bat malady has a suitably mysterious name: white nose syndrome. Scientists have noted a ring of white fungus on the noses of dead and dying bats. They don't know if it's a cause of death or a consequence, or something in between. Emaciation seems the most obvious cause of death, but what's causing it is still unclear.
Coincidentally, the first report of white nose syndrome came in the winter of 2006-2007, around the same time the world was learning about colony collapse disorder, the mysterious malady killing off bees. It wasn't until a year later, however, that the extent and dire consequences of white nose syndrome became evident, and public.
Spelunkers have been asked to stay out of caves across the Northeast. The syndrome has been documented now in states throughout the East Coast and into the Midwest and South. Scientists worry cavers might spread the disease to new caves.
The U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., along with states, colleges and volunteers, are studying caves and carcasses.
In 20088, the USGS put out a Wildlife Health Bulletin to state and private wildlife biologists the rough equivalent of a police APB, or all points bulletin. Be on the lookout for dead bats, and be suspicious of potential causes.
"Anyone finding sick or dead bats should avoid handling them and should contact their state wildlife conservation agency or the nearest U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service field office to report their observation," said USGS wildlife disease specialist Dr. Kimberli Miller.
Beekeepers have bemoaned the slow pace of research into the cause of colony collapse disorder since it first made national news more than a year ago. That's for the bee, whose role in keeping food on our table is well known they're responsible for pollinating roughly one-third of the crops we eat. Bats play a much less-appreciated role in the environment. They eat bugs, sure, but most people still wouldn't struggle to save them, even if they eat mosquitoes and farm pests. Bats haven't been commercialized. The money is unlikely to flow quickly toward a diagnosis or cure. The Center for Biological Diversity criticized a new federal plan for responding to white nose syndrome: "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services plan is still only in draft form and only provides a conceptual framework for responding to the disease. It lists no specific action items and makes no concrete recommendations for research and management of the fast-spreading malady that has hit nine bat species so far, including two on the endangered species list."
In that respect, it may be like the frog crisis. Many Americans are unaware that they've already lost many of the native frogs to the encroachment of a deadly fungus killing off amphibians worldwide. It's marched across the landscape, removing frogs and toads along its path, and scientists have struggled to find enough money to study it and hold out little hope of slowing its spread. It's got a name: chytrid fungus.
What, if any, commonalities these maladies have is unclear. But when whole categories of organisms begin to decline all bees, bats and frogs it's disturbing, indeed.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.