Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is the latest unit of the National Park System to have bats infected with white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease that already has killed about 7 million bats in the country.
Earlier this year the disease was detected in bat populations at both Acadia and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, and it also has been found at New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and Russell Cave National Monument in Alabama.
It has not been found at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
The C&O Canal, a popular respite for Washington, D.C., residents, is also home to Maryland’s largest group of hibernating bats, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The appearance of this terrible bat-killing disease on the outskirts of the nation's capital should be a wake-up call to the White House, members of Congress and agency leaders to do more to address what’s shaping up to be the worst wildlife catastrophe of the century,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center. “Much more can be done to address this disease, including providing more funding for research, restricting access to caves on federal lands and passing the Wildlife Disease Emergency Act, now under consideration in Congress.”
In just six years, the invasive fungal growth that appears on bats’ muzzles as they hibernate has spread to bat colonies in 20 states and four Canadian provinces. Biologists believe several bat species may become extinct as a result of white-nose syndrome, believed to have been inadvertently introduced to a commercial cave in upstate New York from Europe, probably by a cave visitor.
Its appearance in the C&O Canal National Historic Park is no surprise to park officials, as it was found on neighboring state property last year. Surveyors counted the lowest number of bats this year since they began tracking the bat population at the site in 1998. In northeastern states, where the bat disease has been present the longest, bat populations are down by more than 90 percent, according to the Center.
Earlier this week, senators held a hearing on the Wildlife Disease Emergency Act, which would create a monetary fund and rapid-response structure for dealing with wildlife health crises like white-nose syndrome. Introduced last year by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the bill would allow the Interior Department to declare a wildlife disease emergency and create a committee to oversee research and policy decisions, including coordination of state, federal and private entities.
“This bill needs immediate passage,” said Ms. Matteson. “With bats dying on the doorstep of the nation’s capital, decision-makers need to understand that the health of the natural world has real impact on people. Buggier nights in D.C. may be the very least of our problems if more resources are not put to responding to this disease — and soon.”
White-nose syndrome is caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans. The fungus thrives in cold and humid conditions typical of those found in caves and mines in which many bat species hibernate.
Bats with WNS appear to use up their precious fat reserves too quickly to stay in hibernation through the winter. The disease got its name from the white fungal growth that can be seen around the muzzles, ears, and wing membranes of affected bats, typically during their hibernation.
As the disease spreads, its impacts could ripple through ecosystems. Not only are bats efficient predators when it comes to insect control -- some bats can eat up to 2,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single night -- but they in turn are prey for hawks, owls, and skunks, just to name some predators.