A scary Halloween for bats

This weekend as my little goblin and I make our way out into the night in search of treats, there may be more witches and ghosts than bats for us to keep an eye out for.  That's because in three short years a mysterious disease called white-nose syndrome has devastated bats in the northeastern US as it has spread from New York north to Vermont and south through Virginia leaving approximately one million bats dead in its wake.  With bats showing little or no resistance, the disease is expected to continue its speedy pace across the Southeastern and Midwestern US - into areas that include large networks of caves - ones that house populations of endangered species like the gray bat and the Indiana bat.

Scientists have named and described the white fungus that grows around the bats' noses, but they have yet to understand basic facts about the fungus such as where it came from, how it is transmitted and exactly how the fungus causes bats to die.  Much like the die off of bees to Colony Collapse Disorder or the demise of frogs due to the chytrid fungus, many aspects of white-nose syndrome remain a mystery.

The magnitude and velocity with which this disease has spread contrasted with the void of information about it make the need for rapid research imperative.  And that research takes money and initiative.  That's why over the coming year, we will be focusing our efforts on securing funding for priority research and making sure that federal agencies assume leadership and follow through on plans to address the spread of white-nose syndrome. 

For example, earlier this fall, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with the US Geological Survey, US Forest Service, the National Park Service and state agencies announced a draft framework for managing a national response to white-nose syndrome.

The Service also recently awarded $800,000 in grants for research to address the causes and consequences of whitenose as well as the survival of the affected bats.  Nearly half of this money will go towards establishing a captive population of Virginia big-eared bats in case the subspecies is eradicated in the wild.

Another study will attempt to re-populate caves in the northeast to determine whether bats can re-establish their presence after white-nose syndrome has passed through their area.

These are all good first steps, but considering the scope of current research needs, these efforts barely scratch the surface.  Scientists testified to congress earlier this year that their research funding needs over the next 5 years would be in the range of $55 million. 

Luckily, at least a few senators were paying attention as it was announced today that Sen. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Sen. Leahy of Vermont were able to secure $1.9 million for white-nose research.  We are going to need to find more champions like Lautenberg and Leahy in Congress if we are going to tackle this challenge.

Finally, considering the role that bats play in regulating insect communities, their absence may make this and future Halloweens even creepier as evenings become frightfully filled with more creepy crawlies that can carry disease and munch on our crops.  Scarier still, however, is the all too real possibility that this winter, as bats head into their caves to hibernate, many will never come out - a haunting prospect indeed.

We will keep you updated with our efforts to address the white-nose crisis and to bring some attention to these underappreciated creatures of the night.

Happy Halloween.

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Image by Roger Smith shared via Flickr