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White nose syndrome in a New York cave (Photo:  Al Hicks, NYS DEC)
White nose syndrome in a New York cave (Photo: Al Hicks, NYS DEC)

White nose syndrome ravages bat populations as it spreads west

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White Nose Syndrome is a deadly bat disease that continues to spread rapidly across the U.S. It was first identified in a cave near Albany in 2006. In the six years since, it's wiped out 90% of the population of bats in many caves across northern New York and Vermont. Researchers have made headway identifying the fungal disease, but they've found no way to stop it from infecting new sites as far away as western Ontario and Missouri.

Brian Mann checked in with Mollie Mattieson, with the Center for Biological Diversity in Vermont, which has been one of the leading environmental groups working on white nose syndrome. She is just back from a national conference on the disease and says much of the news is still bleak.

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White Nose Syndrome is currently found in 19 states and four Canadian provinces, according to Molly Mattieson from the Center for Biological Diversity in Vermont. It has spread to multiple species of bat, and there are no indications that it is going to slow down.

“It was discovered for the first time in the gray bat, which is a federally-listed endangered species this winter,” said Mattieson. “That discovery has been especially troubling because the gray bat is a species that is highly colonial. Actually about over 90% of all the gray bats in the world hibernate in only about nine caves.” Therefore, if the disease is lethal to gray bats, it could spread rapidly and wipe out the population.

Some of the surveys done in the Northeast recently indicated that some caves were stabilizing and beginning to bounce back. However, according to Mattieson, the numbers of hibernating bats are down tremendously. She said, “Even if they’re stabilizing now, it’s a fraction of what they used to be.”

Scientists also don’t know if the bats that they are seeing in these caves are simply bats that are consolidating themselves. Mattieson said, “The survivors are basically just coming together in the winter.” The other possibility is that these are in fact bats that are not dying. “It’s unclear really what the trend is,” concluded Mattieson.

At the three-day conference Mattieson attended about White Nose Syndrome, researchers who have been working on this disease shared their findings. “They’re looking at potential vaccines, looking at possible antifungal treatments; there’s a lot of things in process right now.” Though the scientists are not necessarily optimistic, they are hoping to be able to offer aid to the bats down the road.

“One of the things that is important to do now is to try to do what we can to keep this disease from spreading by human means because that is something that is still a possibility out there, and if we can try to keep this thing contained until we can come up with effective treatments, that’s the best that we can do,” said Mattieson.

Initially, funding for this research posed a problem and environmental groups protested vocally, and scientists were quietly critical. Now, researchers have more resources to work with in regards to this disease. However, as the disease spreads west, organizations there will have to prepare to meet it and may  lack the resources to do so. “White Nose Syndrome is such an urgent issue. We’re not going to have a second chance at this,” said Mattieson.

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