The story below is an excerpt from our July/August 2014 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Brooke Hines, KY Dept of Fish & Wildlife Resources
Bats Under Threat
These little brown bats are infected with white-nose syndrome.
White-nose syndrome is decimating populations of these cave-dwelling, insect-devouring mammals.
When white-nose syndrome, a debilitating disease believed to have been transported from Europe on cavers’ equipment and clothing, showed up on a few bats in New York in 2006, Blue Ridge biologists were hopeful it wouldn’t head south.
“We watched from afar and thought, ‘Wow, that’s horrible,’” recalls Mike Armstrong, Southeast Bat Recovery and White-Nose Syndrome Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Frankfort, Ky. “But we quickly realized that this thing wasn’t gonna stop. It started to spread, and spread very quickly, throughout the Northeast, and then down through the Appalachians and finally arriving in the Southeast four years ago.”
Certain species, including tricolored and Virginia big-eared bats, are now on the decline here. In one eastern Tennessee cave, the number of already-endangered Indiana bats once ranged from 5,000 to 8,000. In 2011, wildlife experts discovered white-nose syndrome on several of the flying mammals; the following year, the white fungus had invaded their wing membranes and bodies.
“This past winter, [researchers] went in there, and the population had plummeted down to around 2,500 Indiana bats,” says Armstrong. “It was really disheartening.”
To date, an estimated 5.5 million hibernating bats have died from white-nose syndrome across the U.S. The fungal infection, which reproduces in cold, humid caves, thrives in the soil and walls where bats roost. Communal species like the Indiana bat are especially vulnerable since they tend to bed down for the winter in tight clusters.
“In some ways, it’s like a perfect storm,” says Armstrong, noting that insect-eating bats must hibernate in cold weather to conserve energy until spring. They naturally wake up every two or three weeks to fly around, get a drink of water and return to their roosts. ...