In a race to contain, if not outright halt, the spread of white-nose syndrome in bats the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has awarded roughly $1.6 million for research into the cause.
In just a little more than four years the disease, which is deadly to bats, went from not being known to sweeping through parts of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States.
"Although this disease does not bother humans it has been associated with the deaths of more than 1 million bats in just three years," officials at Mammoth Cave National Park said early this year. "The cause of WNS (white-nose syndrome) remains elusive, but the syndrome has been linked to a fungus that forms a white covering on bats' muzzles as well as other body parts such as the wings, causing intense irritation. The fungus seems to prefer cold temperatures and so strikes bats when they are most vulnerable—during hibernation. The irritation causes affected bats to wake and use up energy reserves long before spring comes. They then starve or freeze, and die."
The disease was first spotted in a cave in New York state by a spelunker who was photographing hibernating bats. Since then it has spread to the mountains of western Virginia, parts of eastern Tennessee, and possibly into western Oklahoma, according to USFWS officials.
No infection has been confirmed in Mammoth Cave, where visitors are asked to follow such precautions as not wearing clothes or footwear that they've used in caves outside of the four counties surrounding the park. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, officials closed all caves to the public back in April 2009 with hopes of slowing the spread of the disease.
Now the Fish and Wildlife Service has handed out about $1.6 million for research into the cause of the disease and to identify ways to manage it.
“Bats are essential components of our nation’s ecosystem,” said acting-FWS Director Rowan Gould. “These grants provide critical funding to help the Service and our partners understand white-nose syndrome and address this unprecedented wildlife crisis.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is leading a cooperative effort with federal and state agencies, researchers, universities and other non-government organizations to research and manage the spread of WNS. Grants were provided through the Preventing Extinction program and a congressional appropriation for WNS work. The Fish and Wildlife Service selected recipients from among 36 grant proposals totaling almost $10.6 million.
"I am pleased that the Service is able to continue to fund research that is critical to the management of white-nose syndrome,” says Jeremy Coleman, Ph.D., the Service’s national white-nose syndrome coordinator. “These projects will help us answer critical questions about how to manage this devastating disease.”
Funded projects include detailed studies of Geomyces destructans, the fungus associated with WNS; improving WNS detection techniques; developing a better understanding of how WNS is transmitted; determining the mechanics of G. destructans infections in bats, including the susceptibility and resistance of bats to the infection; and determining how persistent the fungus is in the environment.
The G. destructans fungus is expected to continue to spread. Four endangered species and subspecies of bats in the United States are already affected by or are at risk from WNS.
In addition to Mammoth Cave and Great Smoky Mountains, national parks that contain caves include Sequoia National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, Jewell Cave National Monument, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and Buffalo National River.
For additional information on the disease, and a map that shows where it has been confirmed, visit this FWS site.