It is being described as the most “precipitous decline of North American wildlife in the past century.”
A disease that has decimated bat populations in the eastern U.S. has officially made a jump to the West. A brown bat with white nose syndrome was found by hikers on a trail east of Seattle in mid-March — the first time the deadly fungus has been detected west of the Rocky Mountains. The bat was taken to an animal shelter, where it unfortunately died two days later.
“We’ve been dreading this,” Mollie Matteson, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Huffington Post (THP). Until March, the disease had only spread as far west as Nebraska, 1,300 miles from the site in North Bend, Washington. “This is a drastic jump.”
Photo credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Image has been cropped.
The disease, caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, can wipe out an entire bat colony. It has killed more than 6 million bats in the eastern U.S., and is being described as the most “precipitous decline of North American wildlife in the past century,” according to U.S. Forest Service.
The fungus grows on the noses, wings, and ears of affected bats, giving them a white, fuzzy appearance. The devastating disease spreads throughout the body and interrupts essential hibernation periods. This causes the bats to wake up more frequently during the winter, which uses up their limited fat reserves and leads to death.
“We knew it was coming [to the West], but we didn’t know it would be so soon,” Matteson said to THP.
Analysis of the bat, led by David Blehert, branch chief of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories, revealed that the disease was at an advanced stage, suggesting it had been present for some time. The analysis also revealed that the bat was native to the area.
“We don’t know how the fungus got there,” Blehert explained to THP. But he offered two hypotheses: bat-to-bat, or through human travel and trade. The disease only seems to affect bats that hibernate — there is no threat to humans.
Unfortunately, there is currently no reliable way to cure the disease or stop its spread. “We had hope that by the time [white nose syndrome] started to spread to the West, that there were more effective treatments in place,” Matteson said to THP.
However, genetic analysis may offer some hope of learning where the fungus originated, which could help government response around the world. Researchers are also addressing the possibility of humans spreading the disease, which is likely how it first arrived in North America from Europe and Asia, where it is endemic. There’s also talk about potentially creating a vaccine.
Scientists are not sure if the fungus will spread like it did in the east. Bats in the west do not hibernate in large groups, so the disease may not spread as widely or as quickly from bat to bat. “As the case in Washington indicates, the disease has already been there for a couple years, and it just got discovered this past month,” Matteson told THP.
“One of the huge problems with white nose syndrome has been that the [government] response was slow to get off the ground, it was disorganized, a lack of leadership, there wasn’t any decontamination requirement for western public lands, no cave closures,” Matteson continued.
For now, some abandoned caves and mines have been closed to protect resident bats, and federal agencies are encouraging visitors to decontaminate themselves and their gear before entering an area with bats. However, considering there are species at risk of extinction because of this disease, Matteson argues that decontamination should be mandatory.
Seven cave-hibernating species of bats in 28 states and five Canadian provinces have been affected by white nose syndrome since it was first detected in 2006 in upstate New York. Wildlife officials encourage people who encounter sick or dead bats to report them via an online reporting tool or telephone hotline, 1-800-606-8768.