White-Nose Syndrome Detected In Bats At Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

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.

Comments

Another of many quiet tragedies that may have profound effects on all of us. But something that too many people have no idea it's happening. Like the honeybee die-off.

I can't help but think professionals in the areas of combating pathogens of the human variety in cooperation with Wildlife Bio's can come up with some course that could turn the corner on this.

Through Pam, an Interp Ranger at Grand Canyon, many have learned just how important (and interesting) these critters are while being much maligned. Nothing like having bats fly overhead catching mosquitoes during an interp presentation while listening to their radar activity from an echo locator to bring it all home.

I wonder how the bats in Europe have adapted to this fungus since that seems to be where it came from.

Dick,
There are a few possibilities for bats to develop immunity. The first is the potential change to the way the bats hibernate. The most susceptible species in North America hibernate in very tightly consilidated groups. The bats are all pressed very closely together. This makes it very easy for the fungus to spread from one bat to the next. The bats in Eurpoe have been observed to hibernate in much smaller groups, often dozens instead of several hundred.
The mortality in bats has been tied to their waking from a deep state of hibernation, expending their energy reserves, and essentially starving to death before their regular insect diet is available. But as the fungus spreads to warmer regions, hibernation starts later and ends earlier in the season. WNS has been observed for the first time in Alabama and Missouri this spring. But the infected bats were not dead. It is plausible that the infection didn't wake them and deplete their fat reserves before insects were available. As the fungus inevitably spreads among bats in these transitional areas, more and more of them will survive the infection. This will provide an opportunity for natural selection to favor bats more resistant to the fungus, or at least to the early waking as a consequence of the fungus.
Interestingly, the Townsendi genus seems to be resistant to the disease. It is hypothesized that this is due to the relativly light sleep of this genus of bats. They already are adapted to a cycle of more frequent waking during the winter and are able to retain sufficient fat reserves to make it through the winter.

I must take issue with the article's statement "believed to have been inadvertently introduced to a commercial cave in upstate New York from Europe, probably by a cave visitor." The introduction of the fungus by a cave visitor is simple speculation. It is certainly plausible. But it is also at least as plausible that a European made it to the New York cave. Scholarly publications have documented the transoloaction of bats through ships, aircraft, and shipping containers. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/9/1/02-0104_article.htm The fact that the fungus seems to be spreading along known bat migration pathways and hasn't appeared in areas routinely visited by European cave explorers supports the bat translocation vector as a more likely cause.