Bat White Nose Deaths “Unprecedented”

Bats are dying by the thousands–including the endangered Indiana Bat but several other species as well–and we don’t know why. The emerging animal disease (human risk remains to be determined) called by its most conspicuous outward symptom: White Nose Disease.

It seems unlikely the white powder on the muzzles is anything more than an ordinary opportunistic fungus (identified as Fusarium by Wikipedia, a common plant pathogen) and a sign the sickened bats are so weak that they cannot groom as normal.

What kills them is a metabolic derangement such that they use up fat reserves usually adequate for hibernation. They starve to death while hanging upside-down asleep. Future investigation may involve use of thermal cameras in suspected caves, since diseased bats will glow hotter than normal as they burn away fat stores that should have carried them through the winter.

Global warming doesn’t seem implicated. Caves involved so far are in New York and Vermont, and not farther south (so far as we know now.) But is it a bacteria? A new virus? And how is it transmitted?

This source holds that it is almost exclusively caves visited by cavers where the disease has been found.And of course a caver one day in Argentina could the next day be wearing the same boots in a cave in Vermont. But beyond that, it must be transmissable bat to bat as they congregate as thick as 300 per square foot in some caves. And what happens in the spring when the survivors leave their caves to migrate to other caves hundreds of miles away? We’re about to find out.

Good riddance, you say? Think again. Combined with the loss of bees from Colony Collapse Disorder, this new plague among voracious insect eating bats could have additional, far reaching consequences on agriculture, public health and our increasingly precarious ecological equilibrium.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. This is the first I have heard of this but I can only imagine the way it will affect our mosquito population in America. I depend on my furry, winged friends to get me through those buggy summer nights bite-free or close to it.

  2. We have a bat population that comes to live in our house each early spring until October. (Yes, we have tried many different ways to get them to live outside!) Are you aware of studies being done regarding the effect this disease found in bats might have on humans? Thanks.

  3. So far, no known human risk–just as there is no known human illness (known) from whatever it is causing bee colonies to collapse. But the folks studying the bat populations in potentially-affected caves right now are wearing hazmat outfits to be on the safe side.

  4. march 2,2009
    my daughter lives in dover, n.j.. she found a dying a dying bat in her basement. she reports that a number of people in the area have reported finding dead or dying bats. she lives near “mine hill, nj”…where there are old, abandoned mines. how did the bat get in her basement? don’t know.first the birds, then the bees, now the bats…
    nuff said.