This type of news is bound to keep coming as bats begin to emerge from hibernation and scientists continue to discover more and more caves that now harbor the deadly whitenose syndrome. The white fungus that has already killed over a million bats in the northeastern US has just been discovered in another new cave – the largest and most important cave in the state of West Virginia. An estimated 200,000 bats spend the winter hibernating in Hellhole cave including nearly 13,000 Indiana bats and 5,000 Virginia big-ears – both federally endangered species.
Evidence of whitenose syndrome was found on a bat that was caught as it left the cave so the full extent of the number of infected bats inside the cave remains unknown for now. If it follows the pattern of other bat caves in the northeast, however, we can expect up to 90% or more of those bats to be lost.
Only 15,000 Virginia big-eared bats remain in the world so a loss of this magnitude would deal a big blow to the subspecies. Because of their vulnerability, the Smithsonian National Zoo embarked on a project just this fall to establish a captive population in the event of a species-wide collapse due to whitenose. While these bats have never been kept or bred in captivity, scientists hope that their efforts will buy the subspecies some time while more research is conducted on the cause of whitenose syndrome and ways to slow the spread of the disease.
That research is on-going, but it needs sufficient funding to keep up with the pace and magnitude of this disaster. That’s why we will be urging congress to appropriate funding for research on whitenose syndrome and encouraging federal agencies to dedicate additional resources to this issue. Because if we are going to avoid the loss of endangered species and the important agricultural and ecological services that millions of these bats provide, we will need to avoid the fate of Hellhole.
Image credit: USFWS