Bats Get Pre-Halloween Help

With white-nose syndrome continuing to plague North American bats, the federal government is sending some academics to the rescue.

Since Halloween of 2008 Miller-McCune has been keeping an eye on bats’ noses. Their white noses, to be exact, reflecting a fungal infection clobbering those flying mammals in the United States’ Northeast and Midwest – and now as far north as Canada and as far southwest as Oklahoma.

The fungus, Geomyces destructans, was first detected in the U.S. in January 2007 and quickly made itself known through unprecedented die-off of many species, four of them, like the Indiana bat, already on the endangered list. Wildlife officials have been concerned that if the fungus isn’t stopped, a lot more than the Indiana bat may be threatened.

As David Richardson has described in previous articles, up to 90 percent of hibernating bats in an infected colony are found emaciated or dead, with the white fungus covering their muzzle. But sick bats have also been seen to act strangely, including foraging in the dead of winter, raising questions as to whether the fungus is the cause or just a symptom of the problem.

This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — working through its aptly named Preventing Extinction program — announced it has allocated $1.6 million for six grants to get a better handle on the pathogen that’s killed at least a million bats so far. This is the second year the service has funded six studies into white nose, and this year’s allocation is twice the amount spent last year.

Fish and Wildlife reports that the projects include detailed studies of the fungus; improving detection of white-nose syndrome; gaining a better understanding of how the syndrome is transmitted and how it infects bats, and determining how persistent the fungus is in the environment. (The full list is here.) One study looks at European and North American responses to the fungus, since European bats seem less beaten up by Geomyces.

Given the little that's ultimately known about white-nose, this academic response is one of the few proactive steps the feds can take to deal with the outbreak (except to close caves and mines on federal property to prevent spelunkers transmitting the fungus.) As Boston University ecologist and bat expert Winifred Frick told the magazine Science in August, there is no "silver bullet."

"There's a lot of unanswered questions, and I think at this point the best I can say is that we've got to learn."