Something is killing North America’s bats at an alarming rate and it’s heading this way. It’s already wiped out millions of the flying mammals and shows no sign of stopping. The culprit? White-nose syndrome.
White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that originated in Europe and arrived in New York about a decade ago. It gets its name from the fuzzy collection of white fungus that appears on the bat’s face or extremities. Since showing up in the United States, the fungus has spread to bat colonies from the East Coast to Texas. Last year it was discovered in Washington. That’s 31 states and five Canadian provinces, according to whitenosesyndrome.org.
What makes the fungus, named Pseudogymnoascus destructans, so worrisome for bat researchers is its sheer destructiveness. Some colonies of bats have seen a nearly 100 percent mortality rate once exposed to the fungus. As of 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that between 5.7 and 6.7 million bats had already died from the disease.
“It moves quickly,” Shannon Morgan, a biologist who has studied WNS, said. “There aren’t any current treatment options that are approved by environmental agencies, and it’s devastating to the species we have in Alaska.”
There are just a handful of bat species in Alaska, but the most abundant is Myotis lucifugus, commonly known as little brown bats or little brown myotis. Little brown bats, which are also the most widely dispersed bat in North America, are especially susceptible to WNS. In the Eastern U.S., they prefer to hibernate in humid caves, which are the perfect environment for the fungus to grow and spread between the closely packed bats. Their small size doesn’t do them any favors either when dealing with WNS.
The most widely accepted theory about what actually kills the bats isn’t the fungus itself. As the fungus starts to grow on a bat, the bat will periodically wake to remove the fungus from its face and body. Waking too early and too often from hibernation can have deadly consequences for bats.
“The whole purpose of hibernation is to conserve energy,” Morgan said. “It’s essentially killing them by making them run out of energy and food prior to when they’re supposed to wake up.”
Some researchers have found entire colonies of thousands of bats wiped out over a single winter. In certain cases that’s meant years of research dying along with the bats.
While bat biologists in the Lower 48 have ample research to draw from, those in Alaska have barely begun to scratch the surface.
Karen Blejwas, a biologist from the Department of Fish and Game, is based out of Southeast Alaska and has helped spearhead bat research in the state. She got started around seven years ago by placing acoustic monitoring devices and asking various people if and where they had seen bats. Back then, she didn’t know where the bats were or what species were in Alaska.
Despite bat research by various organizations in Alaska making progress, basic questions like population sizes and hibernation locations are still somewhat of a mystery. Once the arrival of WNS seemed inevitable in the Western U.S., bat biologists began to have a deadly sense of urgency in their research.
“It was kind of a wakeup call to the west that we only have a little bit of time to find out about our bats before white-nose hits,” Blejwas said.
Bats are notoriously known as hitchhikers and could easily find their way into a shipping container destined for Alaska.
Due to limited monitoring, difficulty getting off the road system and the fact that little brown bats in Alaska hibernate in smaller groups and in different types of areas than their eastern counterparts, it could be a while before it’s detected. With massive bat populations consistently returning to the same place in the Eastern U.S., it’s much easier to monitor declines, especially if you know the actual population size to begin with.
“[In the] West we have this real challenge, and it’s a problem we haven’t really solved. How are we going to know when white-nose has arrived?” Blejwas said.
What makes little brown bats such a challenge to study in Alaska could also potentially help slow the spread of the fungus. As opposed to massive bat colonies living in caves where WNS has wreaked havoc on populations, little brown bats in Alaska tend to hibernate in places like scree slopes and boulder fields or man-made structures.
The fungus is transmitted through direct contact, so without huge populations of bats hibernating in one place, even if WNS did spread to Alaska, there’s a chance it could stay somewhat isolated. Without knowing more about WNS and bats in Alaska, that’s just wishful thinking.
Despite what might seem like a losing battle in a race against time, bat researchers in Alaska are actively preparing for the seemingly inevitable arrival of WNS.
Jesika Reimer, a biologist at UAA, is working on monitoring bat maternity colonies. She hopes that by getting solid population data, researchers will be able to detect WNS sooner than later.
In addition to researchers stepping up, Reimer and Blejwas said that community involvement in collecting bat data has been a huge factor in helping progress the research. Having more boots on the ground has helped contribute much-needed data to the understanding of bats in Alaska.
In Reimer’s maternity colony studies, she’s enlisted the help of citizens to identify where bats are as well as counting populations in a given location.
“With white-nose syndrome knocking at the door, it’s a chance for us to do some research and for the community to be involved in research that will actually make a difference,” Reimer said.
In Southeast Alaska, Blejwas and Fish and Game are reaching out to the public to use acoustic monitors to track bats. Even sending dead bats to Fish and Game can be helpful. Information on handling dead bats and other ways to help out can be found on the Fish and Game website.
“I think possibly, at least in the near future, our best — or maybe the only way, really, of detecting [WNS] is going to be people finding a dead bat on the landscape and know[ing] to turn it into Fish and Game so that we can test it for disease,” Blejwas said.
Researchers are developing a response plan, but once WNS lands in Alaska, there’s not much to do other than hope for the best.