Devastating White Nose Syndrome Spreads To Gray Bats

By Amir Khan on May 30, 2012 2:19 PM EDT

Gray Bat
The deadly white-nose syndrome that is decimating the bat population in North America has spread to a new species -- the endangered gray bat, (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The deadly white-nose syndrome that is decimating the bat population in North America has spread to a new species -- the endangered gray bat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Gray bats are particularly vulnerable to the disease and it could wipe the species out, the organization said.

"They could potentially be wiped out in just a couple of years," Ann Froschauer, the Fish and Wildlife Service's national communications leader on white-nose syndrome, told the Washington Post. "If the disease behaves in a similar way it has in the Northeast, we really could be looking at losing this species."

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The cause of white-nose syndrome is a mystery -- it's a fungus that was first discovered in a cave in Schoharie County, N.Y. in 2006 and causes a distinct fungal growth around the nose and wings of bats hibernating in caves. The disease causes a variety of other symptoms, such as strange flight patterns and times and death. Over 6 million bats have died as a result of white-nose syndrome, and it has been found in caves stretching from Canada to Alabama.

Gray bats spend more time in caves than other species of bats, making them particularly susceptible to the disease, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. Since 90 percent of gray bats gather in nine caves in five states, the disease could destroy the population quickly and efficiently.

"The documented spread of WNS on gray bats is devastating news," Paul McKenzie, Missouri Endangered Species Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. "This species was well on the road to recovery, and confirmation of the disease is great cause for concern. Because gray bats hibernate together in colonies that number in the hundreds of thousands, WNS could expand exponentially across the range of the species. "

McKenzie also said the loss of bats could be devastating for other animals that live in the caves.

"The confirmation of WNS in gray bats is also alarming because guano from the species is an important source of energy for many cave ecosystems and there are numerous cave-adapted species that could be adversely impacted by their loss," he said in the statement.

If the disease causes a mass die-off of the bats, it could massively affect agriculture in the areas, Froschauer told MSNBC.

"Gray bats eat a lot of moths, beetles, flies," she said. "A colony of 250,000 gray bats can eat about one ton of insects in a night. There aren't other animals that can step in and take the place of bats in terms of these pest control services."

McKenzie echoed her statement.

"Gray bats probably consume over a trillion insects," he told MSNBC. "The economic impact to agriculture and forestry could be astronomical."

Ultimately, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to work to ensure that the population survives, Jeremy Coleman, National WNS Coordinator for the Service, said in a statement. Since the disease is poorly understood, they do not know how the bat species will respond to the disease.

"We are not sure what this diagnosis is going to mean for gray bats and the spread of WNS," he said. "Increased vigilance and improved diagnostic procedures may mean that we have identified the very early stages of infection in a new species. It is also possible that gray bats have been exposed for a few years, but do not succumb to the infection. Individual bat species appear to respond differently to WNS, and only research and time will reveal where gray bats fit on the spectrum."

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