Bats across North America are dying as a result of White Nose Syndrome (WNS), an affliction, scientists say, is caused by a fungus from Europe. The fungus, Geomyces destructans, is killing millions of flying mammals in the Northeast and now in the Midwest.
US Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats have now died from white-nose syndrome. Biologists expect the disease to continue to spread.
Both the LA Times and the Washington Post have reported on the topic, looking at the national and international problem.
First documented in New York in 2006, the disease has spread quickly into 16 states and four Canadian provinces. Here in Massachusetts, the problem was first documented in Western Mass in 2007 and during the 2008-2009 winter season near Boston.
Mass Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Assistant Director Tom French, who was in charge of the surveys that looked for bats with WNS, explained to this examiner that when they looked at bats near the Sudbury Aqueduct tunnels (near Framingham) WNS was definitely present.
In the Fall of this last year, Massachusetts Wildlife, the quarterly journal of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, dedicated a 14 page article to WNS. Within that article, author Peter Mirick explained that evidence suggests the fungus causing WNS “came from Europe-probably on a caver’s equipment, but maybe just clinging mundanely to a tourist’s sneakers.” The evidence, Mirick goes on to say, is so overwhelming that many state agencies are closing off caves to visitors. This is significant because the Sudbury Aqueducts are closed off to humans. The fact that the fungus is present in areas that have been closed off to humans for decades likely means that the fungus, French confirmed, is also being transported by the bats themselves.
This rising death toll for the bats is important not only because of the threat to the bats, but also because of the role bats play in their ecosystem. According to this week’s announcement by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “bats provide tremendous value to the US economy as natural pest control for American farms and forests every year, while playing an essential role in helping to control insects that can spread disease to people.”
Nina Fascione, executive director of Bat Conservation International explained in a statement earlier this week that “We must redouble our efforts to deal with this terrible disease, and additional funding is crucial. If WNS continues to take such a huge toll, the environmental and economic costs will be enormous.”