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WHITE-NOSE SYNDROME


THE LIVES OF BATS

Bats are the only true flying mammals on Earth and one of the most diverse groups of mammals. One in five mammal species is a bat. Some bats eat fruit, some pollinate flowers, others catch fish out of the water, and of course there’s the notorious vampire bat, which feeds on blood. But most bats in North America are insect eaters, and that’s a good thing for us. Some of the bugs eaten by bats are major crop pests; others, like mosquitoes, are simple nuisances but can also be carriers of disease. Bats help to keep insect populations in balance.

Bats are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. During the day, bats roost in caves, under the bark of large trees and other places. One of the most unusual things about bats, besides the fact that they fly, is that they navigate in the dark and hunt their prey with echolocation, or sonar. They send out a vocal signal and listen for the sound waves to bounce back. In this manner they are able to zoom in on flying insects with laser-like accuracy. Amazingly some prey species, like certain moths, have evolved “jamming” systems that thwart the bats’ sonar.

In temperate regions of the world, insect-eating bats have to deal with the winter dearth of prey by either hibernating or migrating. All the bats that have proven susceptible to white-nose syndrome so far are hibernators. Clustering in small to truly massive groups (numbering hundreds of thousands of individual bats) is one way hibernating bats conserve energy. Another way, for female bats, is to delay pregnancy until spring. Although mating occurs in the fall, the females “store” sperm in their bodies over the winter. Fertilization then occurs in the spring, just as the new bug season is getting underway, and plentiful food for mother and the new baby (only one per year for most bat species) can be expected.

Bats may play a key role in the maintenance of some cave ecosystems by bringing in an outside energy source (their guano, or droppings) to energy-poor, lightless caves. Cave biologists think some cave creatures may be highly dependent on bat guano as a source of food, and their survival may be in jeopardy as bat populations disappear with white-nose syndrome.

For obvious reasons (being nocturnal, able to fly and favoring dark, dank holes in the ground for habitat), bats are difficult to study, and biologists know very little about most species. Even something as rudimentary as “How many bats are there?” is a hard question for scientists to answer. This scarcity of information about the basic biology of bats has been a significant impediment to effectively addressing the threat of white-nose syndrome.


THE ECONOMIC VALUE OF BATS

Bats eat bugs, which is not only helpful for keeping mosquitoes and another annoying insects at bay for us humans but also has economic importance. A recent scientific paper on the economic value of bats to agriculture estimated that bats provided nontoxic pest-control services totaling $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year. This study did not even consider what the indirect costs of “replacing” bats with pesticides would be in terms of potential health and pollution threats from greater levels of toxins in the environment.

Bats provide other services to humans too, such as pollinating plants and distributing seeds, in tropical and subtropical habitats throughout the world. Some of these plants are useful to people, including a species of agave that is the source of tequila, a multimillion-dollar industry in Mexico. Bat guano has traditionally been used as fertilizer for crops in various parts of the world and is also sold commercially. However, mining of bat guano may also be harmful to cave organisms that depend on it as a source of food, and removal of guano is likely to be disruptive to bats themselves, if they are present.


WHITE-NOSE SYNDROME: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

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Why are bats dying in North America?

An estimated 6.7 million bats have died since 2006 because of an outbreak of white-nose syndrome, a fast-moving disease that has wiped out entire colonies and left caves littered with the bones of dead bats. The epidemic is considered the worst wildlife disease outbreak in North American history and shows no signs of slowing down. It threatens to drive some bats extinct and could do real harm to the pest-killing services that bats provide, worth billions of dollars each year, in the United States.

What is white-nose syndrome, and how does it kill bats?

White-nose syndrome is the result of a fungus called Geomyces destructans that invades and ingests the skin of hibernating bats, including the wings. It causes bats to wake up more frequently during the winter, possibly because of water loss from damaged tissue. Bats aroused from hibernation burn up large amounts of limited winter fat reserves and often starve to death because of a lack of insects during the cold months. In some cases, their wings are too damaged to fly. Dead or dying bats are frequently observed with a white fuzz around their muzzles, hence the name “white-nose syndrome.”

How deadly is it?

Typically, the disease kills 70 percent to 90 percent of bats in an affected hibernaculum (the area where bats gather to hibernate for the winter). In some cases, the mortality rate has been 100 percent, wiping out entire colonies. Some caves that once hosted hundreds of thousands of bats are now virtually empty.

Where did the fungus come from?

Although the exact origins are unclear, there’s strong evidence that the fungus was brought to North America by people. It has been found in 12 countries in Europe, where bats appear to be adapted to, and unaffected by, the fungus. Because bats do not travel between the continents, this strongly suggests the fungus was newly introduced to North America by people — likely cavers who transported it on their gear or clothing. This pattern is reminiscent of the spread of diseases that ravaged American Indian people when Europeans first colonized. White-nose syndrome was first discovered in North America in upstate New York in February 2006.

Does it affect all bats in North America?

So far, white-nose syndrome appears to affect only bats that hibernate, which make up about half of the 45 bat species in the United States. Pollinating bats and long-distance migrants that don’t hibernate don’t seem to be affected.

How many bat species have been affected, and which ones are they?

Eleven species (including four endangered species) have been affected by the disease or are immediately threatened by it. The disease has affected: the big brown bat, eastern small-footed bat, Indiana bat (endangered), little brown bat, northern long-eared bat and tricolored bat. The fungus has also been found on the cave bat, gray bat (endangered) and southeastern bat. Other endangered bats living in areas where the fungus is present are the Virginia big-eared bat and the Ozark big-eared bat.

Where has white-nose syndrome been found?

The disease has been confirmed in 17 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces: Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia in the United States and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec in Canada. The fungus causing the disease has also been found in Missouri and Oklahoma. See an animation of the disease’s spread.

How many bats have died?

An estimated 6.7 million bats have died in North America.

How does this disease spread?

It is passed from one bat to another, or from the cave environment to bats, but it also likely spreads when people inadvertently carry it from one cave to another on their shoes, clothes or equipment.

Are there ways to stem its spread?

Yes. One of the most important is to close caves and abandoned mines to all but essential human travel. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition in January 2010 to close all caves and abandoned mines on federally controlled lands in the lower 48 states.

Have enough caves been closed?

No. Although there have been widespread cave closures in the eastern United States, where the disease is most prevalent, land managers in the West — where the disease is expected to arrive soon — have yet to take the threat of this wildlife crisis seriously. Although some caves in the West have been closed, it’s not nearly enough to slow the spread of this deadly disease.

Is there a cure?

No, but researchers are learning more about how the disease kills bats, which is an important step toward developing an effective treatment. Also, European bats appear to be immune to the fungus, and finding out why could provide vital clues to a cure for North American bats.

Is the federal government doing enough about this wildlife crisis?

No. More than four years after the outbreak, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally produced a plan for white-nose syndrome, but it lists few specific action items and makes no concrete recommendations for research and management of the disease. While important scientific study is happening, much more is needed, and funding for the disease is scarce. Meanwhile, most federal land agencies in the western United States have still not implemented widespread emergency cave closures and do not even have plans to do so, leaving caves on the majority of western public lands vulnerable to human transmission of the bat disease.

Why are bats important?

Bats account for about one-fifth of all mammals on Earth and provide enormous ecosystem services. One of the most important is controlling insects. A single bat can eat thousands of insects in a single night.

Do bats have an economic value in the United States?

Yes. Bats consume millions of pounds of night-flying insects each year and help keep in check bugs that are problematic for agriculture and forestry. A recent study found that the value of bats’ pest-control services in the United States ranges from $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year.

Could some bat species go extinct?

Yes. Of particular concern are those bats already on the endangered species list, including the Indiana bat, gray bat, Virginia big-eared bat and Ozark big-eared bat. Even the little brown bat, one of the most common bats in North America, could be in trouble. A leading bat scientist says the little brown bat is “in imminent danger of extinction” in the core of its Northeast habitat because of white-nose syndrome. The Center and others have requested that the government review the little brown bats’ status in light of the disease. The Center has also petitioned for the endangered species listing of the eastern small-footed bat and northern long-eared bats.

What can I do?

Become a Bat Advocate. We need your help to save America’s bats from this deadly disease. By lending your voice to this effort, you’re letting Congress, the president and other decision-makers around the country know something must be done now to address this unprecedented wildlife crisis. You can start today by writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, liking our Facebook page and sharing it with friends and family.



A fast-moving disease is killing bats across many parts of North America, and we need your help to stop it.


White-nose syndrome has killed an estimated 6.7 million bats since it was first discovered in the United States in 2006. Biologists consider it the worst wildlife disease outbreak ever in North America. It not only threatens to drive some bat species extinct but could also have an enormous effect on the billions of dollars in pest-killing services that bats provide each year in this country.

In just a few years, the disease has spread to 19 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces. The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome has been found on bats in two other states, Missouri and Oklahoma. Biologists fear it could soon spread from coast to coast, wiping out entire bat colonies and pushing some species to extinction.

But it’s not too late. The Center for Biological Diversity has filed several petitions to save bats and protect the places they live. We need your help to:
pressure Congress to finally provide $10.8 million in research money to find the best ways to stop this disease;
pass the Wildlife Disease Emergency Act; and
persuade state and federal land managers to block all but the most essential human travel into caves and abandoned mines, especially those in the West, where the disease has yet to gain a foothold.

One-fifth of all mammal species are bats, which provide vital services in the places they live. Among the most important is controlling insects. A single bat can eat thousands of insects in one night, which benefits people, agriculture and forestry. A recent study found that the value of bats’ pest-control services in the United States ranges from $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year.

Unfortunately white-nose syndrome threatens to vastly reduce the number of bats in North America. Mortality has reached 100 percent in some caves affected by white-nose syndrome, and often the disease kills 70 percent to 90 percent of bats in a colony.

Of particular concern are those bats already on the endangered species list, including the Indiana bat, gray bat, eastern small-footed bat, Virginia big-eared bat and Ozark big-eared bat. Even the little brown bat, once one of the most common bats in North America, could be in trouble. A leading bat scientist says the little brown bat is “in imminent danger of extinction” in the Northeast because of white-nose syndrome.

Although its exact origins are unclear, there’s strong evidence that white-nose syndrome was originally transported from Europe, where the fungus exists but does not kill bats. White-nose syndrome was first discovered in North America in a cave frequently visited by people in upstate New York in February 2006. Because bats don't travel between Europe and North America, this provides compelling evidence that the fungus was introduced to the Northeast by cavers travelling between continents.

OUR CAMPAIGN

The Center has already taken crucial steps to stem the spread of this deadly disease, most recently filing a lawsuit against the northern region of the Forest Service for withholding documents about cave closures and other measures in Idaho and Montana that could reduce risk of transmission. We've also filed a petition in January 2010 to limit human access to caves on federal lands across the lower 48 states, requested that the government review the little brown bat’s status in light of the disease (accompanied by an independent scientific assessment of the species’ status), filed anotice of intent to sue federal land-management agencies for failing to respond to our petition for cave closures, sent a coalition letter to Congress requesting $10.8 million in funding to research and fight white-nose syndrome and filed a suit against the BLM for allowing cavers to enter Colorado caves harboring at-risk bats. Regarding specific species, we've petitioned to protect theeastern small-footed and northern long-eared bats as endangered under the Endangered Species Act — and the Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering doing that.

It’s vital that we curtail the spread of this disease, dramatically ramp up research, and take every step possible to save millions more bats from death. We need your help. You can start today — join the Center's Save Our Bats campaign by signing in at the top of this page, become a Bat Advocate now, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, like our Facebook page and share it with friends and family.




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