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White-nose Syndrome

White-nose syndrome is the result of a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which invades and ingests the skin of hibernating bats, including the wings. It causes bats to wake up more frequently during the winter, possibly because of water loss from damaged tissue. Bats aroused from hibernation burn up large amounts of limited winter fat reserves and often starve to death because of a lack of insects during the cold months. In some cases, their wings are too damaged to fly. Dead or dying bats are frequently observed with a white fuzz around their muzzles, hence the name “white-nose syndrome.”

Typically, the disease kills 70 percent to 90 percent of bats in affected hibernacula (the areas where bats gather to hibernate for the winter). In some cases, the mortality rate has been 100 percent, wiping out entire colonies. Some caves that once hosted hundreds of thousands of bats are now empty.

It’s estimated that to date white-nose syndrome has killed about 6.7 million bats in North America.

Although its exact origins are unclear, there’s strong evidence that the white-nose syndromefungus was originally transported from Europe, where the fungus exists but does not kill bats. The syndrome was first discovered in North America in a cave frequently visited by people in upstate New York in February 2006. Because bats do not travel between Europe and North America, this provides compelling evidence that the fungus was introduced to the Northeast by caver visitors travelling between continents.

The fungus is passed from one bat to another, but it also likely spreads when people inadvertently carry it from one cave to another on their shoes, clothes or equipment.

White-nose syndrome appears only to affect bats that hibernate, which make up about half of the 45 bat species in the United States. Pollinating bats and long-distance migratory bats that don’t hibernate don’t seem to be affected.

So far, seven species (including two endangered species) have been directly affected by the disease The disease has infected big brown bats, Eastern small-footed bats, Indiana bats (endangered), little brown bats, northern long-eared bats,tricolored bats and gray bats (also endangered). The fungus has also been found on the cave bat and the southeastern bat. Other endangered bats living in areas where the fungus is present are the Virginia big-eared bat and the Ozark big-eared bat.

The disease has been confirmed in 25 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Michigan in the United States and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec in Canada. The fungus causing the disease has also been found in Iowa and Minnesota. See an animation of the disease’s spread 2006-2011.

Photo courtesy of New York Department of Environmental Conservation