New Bern, NC – INTRO - A disease with high mortality rates for bat populations is working its way South and is expected to soon be found in North Carolina. George Olsen has more.
White-nose syndrome has so far been found in eleven states, primarily in the northeast. But among those eleven states are Virginia and Tennessee, which is why a research ecologist with the U-S Forest Service Southern Research Station predicts the illness will soon find its way to North Carolina.
"We have bats we banded in North Carolina during the summer last summer and they were in caves in Tennessee, so these bats were going back and forth they don't understand state boundaries very well."
Susan Loeb with the U-S Forest Service. The fact bats can't read maps may be about the only thing researchers know for certain as they investigate a disease that has killed an estimated one-million bats since it was first discovered in a New York mine in 2006.
"Big brown bats are found throughout the country and where they are found they are quite common. In New York and New Hampshire and Vermont where they were quite common we've seen 90-95% mortality in the caves that they occupy. So if that holds and every cave where they are found then yes, this bat could have some serious conservation concerns."
The disease so far seems to be confined to bats that hibernate during winter months in caves and mines which means bats common to the eastern half of the state will likely not be affected. That's bad news for the region's mosquitoes a USDA press release says a small number of bats can eat thousands of mosquito-sized insects in one night, so if you're enjoying a summer evening and not being devoured by mosquitoes, you can thank a bat. But in the western half of the state with its caves and mines, if the disease takes hold, it will be bad for bat numbers. White Nose Syndrome apparently does not kill bats directly, but by disrupting their winter hibernation cycle
"Normally they rouse every 2-3 weeks for short periods of time then go back into their hibernation state. It's very energetically expensive for them to arouse and maintain a warm body temperature in these cold caves. What appears to happen is something in the hibernation cycle is being disrupted and they seem to be using up a lot of their fat."
One of the things researchers are most concerned about is the effect this could have on bats who are already listed as endangered. For instance, in North Carolina there are just several hundred Virginia big-eared bats and a disease with an up-to-95% mortality rate could just about wipe that species from the North Carolina landscape.
"The good news is that WNS has been found in a large cave in West Virginia that does have Virginia big-eared bats, and while other bats in the cave were dying, particularly little brown bats, this winter none of the Virginia big eared bats were affected, so we are hoping that possibly they will not be affected by this."
Unfortunately at this stage in research of white nose syndrome so named for a white fungus around the nose of affected bats "hoping" is a key word. Susan Loeb says researchers at this point aren't certain if the illness is spread by direct contact between bats or environmental conditions in cave. They also don't know if the "white nose" is just a symptom or directly related to the illness. The closest thing to good news is what researchers found overseas.
"However, recently we've found the fungus is in Europe and bats do occasionally have this white fungus. However, they're healthy and they're not dying from it. It's possible its been in Europe for a very long time and either the bats in Europe are immune to it or at one point they were not immune to it and went thru this great disaster of death and come through it."
While science struggles to find answers, nature may take its course and somehow come out the other side. Susan Loeb is a research ecologist with the U-S Forest Service Southern Research Station. I'm George Olsen.