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Bats in danger: A response to white-nose syndrome

Since its 2006 discovery in a single cave in New York, white-nose syndrome has killed more than a million bats. Named for the characteristic white fungus found on the muzzles and wing membranes of infected bats, white-nose syndrome causes bats to awaken early from hibernation and use up the fat reserves necessary to get through the winter. These bats leave the warmth and safety of their caves, where upon they usually freeze or starve to death.

The annual White-Nose Syndrome Symposium took place last month in Little Rock, Arkansas. Organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bat Conservation International, the meeting brought together biologists, state and federal wildlife managers, and non-profit experts all dedicated to mitigating the effects of this devastating disease. Scientists presented the latest research and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its final National Plan for Assisting States, Federal Agencies, and Tribes in Managing White-Nose Syndrome in Bats.

The situation is dire. Nine species of bat in 19 states have been documented with either white-nose syndrome or the fungus, Geomyces destructans, which is the likely cause of the disease. In some infected caves, the mortality rate is near 99 percent. Most of the affected bats are little brown bats, a common species across North America. However, little brown bats now face regional extinction in the areas where white-nose syndrome is rampant. These bats also share hibernation caves with endangered bat species like the Indiana bat and the Virginia big-eared bat. For these bats, extinction could be imminent.

In Little Rock, attendees of the symposium formed working groups to discuss how to develop the White-Nose Syndrome Implementation Plan, including funding additional research as well as monitoring and conservation actions. The next major battle will be in Congress, where the non-profit National Speleological Society is testifying before a House oversight committee on the white-nose syndrome situation and the government response.

Bats are not the first wildlife to face potential extinction by infection. The recent worldwide decline, and multi-species extinction, of amphibians was due to an introduced fungal disease. However, it took two decades for scientists to publish the first evidence of fungus-related amphibian decline, and another decade before the research community organized to develop a global policy response to the threat. The response to white-nose syndrome illustrates a shift in how rapidly scientists and conservationists can mobilize resources to first identify an environmental problem, and then work together to implement a solution.