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The Facts about White Nose Syndrome

Friday, June 15, 2012

It was announced by the Wisconsin DNR on Wednesday that White Nose Syndrome was found in bats in an Iowa cave less than 30 miles from the Wisconsin border. You might be asking yourself, “Why should I care about bats? What does it matter if they have white noses?” No matter your personal opinion on bats, White Nose Syndrome is a pandemic affecting bats across the country. Bats are an integral part of our ecosystem, and their health (believe it or not) has a direct impact on the human population.

Photo Credit: wvdnr.org
What is White Nose Syndrome?

White Nose Syndrome is an illness affecting bats caused by a fungus (Geomyces destructans) that originated in European caves. Bats in Europe have evolved and co-existed with the fungus and therefore are not sickened by it, but bats in the US were caught off-guard when the fungus arrived here. The fungus was first discovered in the United States in New York caves in about 2006, and at that time it killed about half of the wintering population of bats in affected caves.

The name White Nose Syndrome refers to the white growth that appears on a bats’ nose when they are infected by the fungus. Fortunately the disease cannot be spread to humans, but it can be spread bat to bat and also spread to other caves by mechanical equipment. Right now six species of American bats are susceptible to WNS, and the mortality rate is estimated to be between 90 and 100 percent.

What happens to a bat infected with White Nose Syndrome?

Hibernating bats infected with White Nose Syndrome will have their hibernation cycle affected. A normal hibernating bat will awaken every 10-20 days, but a bat with WNS will wake up every 3-4 days. About 90% of the bats will die of starvation, due to awakening so frequently to eat/drink and the shortage of insects to eat during the winter months. The fungus also damages their connective tissues, muscles and skin.

How is White Nose Syndrome cured?

Herein lies the problem…as of now, it cannot be cured. Scientists are still not totally clear on what this fungus is, or how it sickens the bats.

Photo credit: mosquitoworld.net
How does White Nose Syndrome affect me?

Bats are of critical importance to our ecosystem. A single Little Brown Bat can eat over half of its weight in insects every night, and nursing mothers can eat their entire body weight's worth! If our ecosystem suffers a swift decline in the bat population, one can only imagine the population explosion of bugs humans will have to contend with. Here in Wisconsin, this will likely mean an increase in the number of mosquitoes we’ll be left to fend off. Bats tend to eat night-flying insects, so moths and beetle numbers would also increase. An increase in moths and beetles is a major blow to farmers. With more moths and beetles eating their crops, more pesticides will need to be employed—and the increased cost will inevitably trickle down to the consumer. Natural control of insects via the bat population saves the agriculture industry millions of dollars every year. In addition to the increased cost, an increased use of chemical pesticides will lead to more soil and water contamination affecting humans and wildlife for years to come.

What can I do to help?

Consider planting a wildflower garden! You can help our bats survive by planting flowers that attract their prey insects.  In addition to providing prey for bats, you will also attract beneficial bugs like ladybugs to help control aphids and other pests in your vegetable garden.

Buy a bat house! Providing bats a place to roost will help colonies to thrive, literally right in your own backyard. (As a side note, be certain to never ever handle bats: if you think you’ve seen a live or dead bat with WNS, contact the DNR immediately.)

Consider donating to the bat conservation effort! White Nose Syndrome is spreading quickly, and there is still no cure. Bats populations are expected to decline greatly, and some species may even face extinction if a cure for WNS cannot be found soon. Bat Conservation International is a great organization to support financially, and have many donation options available. If you like to donate more locally, consider becoming a member of Bat Conservation of Wisconsin.

Tell your family and friends! Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth. Tell your family and friends about White Nose Syndrome, and explain to them the impact of this horrible illness. The more people that are behind this very important cause, the better chance we'll have of finding a cure and saving our native bat populations.

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