Wildlife Experts Joining Calls Of Alarm Over White-Nose Syndrome In Bats

More and more concern is being voiced over the spread of white-nose syndrome in bats. Photo by Alan Hicks, New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

With traces of white-nose syndrome in bat colonies being found further and further west of the Northeast where it was first documented, more and more concern is being raised over the disease's potential to decimate bat species.

On Wednesday a group of wildlife experts ranging from professors at the University of California Davis to state and national wildlife agencies voiced their concern over the spread of white-nose syndrome.

From its discovery in 2006 a cave in upstate New York, "white-nose syndrome" has somewhat rapidly spread south and west. It now has been confirmed in at least 11 states and three units of the National Park System -- Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Ozark National Scenic Riverways. While some dead bats were discovered at the NRA, only signs of the fungus were found at the other two units.

"If we lose bats, we lose keystone species in some communities, predators that consume enormous numbers of insects, and beautiful wildlife species that are important parts of North America's biodiversity," Janet Foley, a UC Davis professor of veterinary medicine at the Center for Vectorborne Diseases, said in a release.

Dr. Foley and her co-authors' call to action came in conjunction with an article that appeared in the Conservation Biology. The article was developed after the authors attended a white-nose syndrome workshop in Colorado in August that was funded by the National Park Service.

Bats are essential members of natural ecosystems, hunting insects, pollinating plants and scattering seeds, Dr. Foley said. "Bats do the jobs at night that birds do during the day. But because they are most active in darkness, few people are aware of how many bats live around us and how valuable they are."

According to a release from the university, scientists think the fungus, which normally resides in soil, traveled to cave walls where bats hibernate in winter and began infecting the animals' facial skin and wing membranes.

Sick bats appear to be dusted with confectioners sugar. They fly more than normal, which uses up fat reserves, and also lose water at a faster rate than normal, according to the researchers. Disoriented, they move to exposed places, such as cave entrances. Eventually, they starve, freeze or die of dehydration. The disease does not appear to be a threat to humans or other animals, according to Dr. Foley.

In the article in Conservation Biology the authors predict that the disease will cross the Rocky Mountains and enter California in the next several years.

The National Wildlife Health Center, a program of the U.S. Geological Survey, identified the white-nose fungus, Geomyces destructans, in 2007.

"In the three years since its discovery, white-nose syndrome has changed the focus of bat conservation in North America," said Dr. Foley. "A national response is required, and our epidemiological roadmap is designed to help emerging state and national plans to combat white-nose syndrome across the United States."

The authors' recommendations include: an outbreak investigation network that would establish a standard diagnosis and case definitions; bat population monitoring; and improved public awareness of the problem.

"Scientists, policymakers and members of the public will all have a voice in the coming debate over the best course of action," Dr. Foley said. They also call for further studies of chemical and biological agents known to kill the fungus but not yet proven safe for bats, as well as study of treatments for similar diseases.

Dr. Foley's co-authors are: Deana Clifford, a research associate at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center and associate wildlife veterinarian at the California Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife Investigations Lab in Sacramento; Kevin Castle, a wildlife veterinarian at the National Park Service's Biological Resource Management Division in Fort Collins, Colo.; Paul Cryan, a research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Fort Collins; and Richard Ostfeld, a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystems Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.