Bats and White-nose Syndrome

Little Brown Bat
Photo: Mike Adamovic

In the winter of 2006, a previously undescribed fungus was observed on sick and dead bats in a cave near Albany, New York.  This fungus, now aptly named Geomyces destructans, originates from Europe and has been associated with over one million bat mortalities in North America since 2006. The fungal infection is damaging to the bat’s skin and wing membranes and can be seen covering the noses of hibernating bats, hence the name White-nose Syndrome (WNS).  Infected bats wake up frequently during winter hibernation, which causes them to expend precious energy reserves and essentially starve.  Recent experiments have confirmed that the fungus is pathogenic and the cause of these mortalities.

Trailside Zoo has conducted annual bat surveys at an abandoned park mine since 2005 and discovered signs of White-nose Syndrome during the winter of 2009.   From 2005 to 2008 the bat population was extremely stable, with ca. 270 individuals of four species present.  Since 2009 and the arrival of WNS, the population has crashed and only a handful of bats remain.

In an effort to protect the remaining wintering bats, Trailside teamed with NY State Park’s biologists to place a protective steel “bat gate” over the mine entrance to reduce disturbance to the remaining bats from visitors, while still allowing the bats to enter and leave through narrow slots . Despite signage explaining the purpose of the barrier, vandals had removed the heavy welded gate within three weeks of installation.

The future of our wintering bats in NY remains unclear. White-nose syndrome has devestated bat populations in the eastern North America and has spread across the continent to Washington State. While scientists seek solutions, there is some hope that surviving bats, though few, may have some natural resistance to this pathogen. If this proves to be the case, and resistance is heritable, populations may be able to rebuild. Time will tell.