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For Immediate Release, May 29, 2012

Contact:  Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Bat-killing Disease Discovered in Endangered Gray Bats

White-nose Syndrome Strikes Seventh Species

ROGERSVILLE, Tenn.—  Wildlife officials in Tennessee confirmed today that federally endangered gray bats are the latest hibernating bat species to contract white-nose syndrome, the disease that has already killed nearly 7 million bats across the eastern United States and Canada over the past six years. The discovery of the epidemic's spread to caves in Hawkins and Montgomery counties raises concerns of catastrophic losses among gray bat populations.   

“There could hardly be worse news for our wildlife than for white-nose syndrome to show up in gray bats,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which this spring petitioned the White House for national action on the disease outbreak. “The vast majority of the world’s population of gray bats lives in only a handful of caves. If the disease proves lethal to them, the entire species could be gone in a few years.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials stated that no mortality had yet been observed in gray bats, but the agency is deeply concerned that the species, which is confined to a small range in the southeastern United States, could rapidly plummet toward extinction. Before the arrival of white-nose syndrome, federal wildlife officials had been preparing to take the species off the endangered list thanks to population gains in recent decades.  

Biologists are also worried that the loss of gray bats could spell doom for highly specialized creatures that never leave cave environments and which have likely coevolved with bats to feed upon their guano. Such obligatory cave dwellers may have no alternative food source to turn to if bats vanish.

The latest appearance of white-nose syndrome in a new species indicates the disease is capable of spreading beyond the original six bat species affected by the disease over the past six years. Biologists have expressed grave concern that the fungal disease could spread to hibernating bats throughout North America. In all, as many as two dozen bat species could be at risk.

In response to the threat of the disease spread by people traveling between bat-inhabited caves and mines, federal officials have closed most caves in the eastern and southern United States to human access. Some state and private caves in the East have been made off-limits to nonessential access too; but in the West, the majority of bat-inhabited caves and mines, many of which are on federal public lands, remain open to cave recreation and the potential for human transmission of white-nose syndrome.  

Bat-to-bat transmission is responsible for some of the disease’s spread; but a growing body of circumstantial evidence points to fungal transport by people as another means for disease spread. Researchers believe the most likely explanation for the arrival of the disease in North America is transport of the fungus from Europe by a cave visitor. The white-nose fungus has been found on cave-dwelling bats in Europe but does not appear to cause them any significant health problems. Scientists are suspicious of long-distance leaps of the disease, especially where they have occurred in caves that are popular sites for visitation and recreation.

“Our federal land and wildlife managers have a duty to safeguard our wildlife heritage for the future," said Matteson. "If they fail to take aggressive measures now to protect western bats, it will be an egregious dereliction of their conservation duties.”

Although bats can transport white-nose, it is easily spread on boots, clothing, caving gear and other objects, providing a vector for long-distance dispersal beyond the range of natural bat migration.

In just six years, white-nose has spread from upstate New York to bat colonies in 19 states and four Canadian provinces. In northeastern states, where the bat disease has been present the longest, bat populations are down by more than 90 percent. Biologists believe several bat species may become extinct as a result of white-nose syndrome.

The loss of bats is a potential economic disaster. Scientists have estimated that insect-eating bats consume enough agricultural pests to be worth $22 billion annually to American farmers. 

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The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 350,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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