Holy white-nose syndrome, Batman! Deadly bat disease makes its way across the U.S.

Healthy little brown bat. CREDIT: Dave Riggs

Kidding aside — this is really bad news for bats.

March 11, 2016: It’s a cool, rainy day in the Washington State wilderness near North Bend, a scenic little town about 30 miles east of Seattle, when a group of hikers find a lethargic, near-lifeless little brown bat, on the ground. The hikers, concerned the bat, if left there, would succumb to the elements, gather up the bat and bring it to a local animal hospital for care.

At the animal hospital, Washington’s Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), the attending veterinarian Dr. John Huckabee examines the bat, a common North American bat species weighing less than half an ounce with a wingspan of about a foot. What he finds is alarming: lesions and a white residue on the bat’s wings — signs of white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that’s devastated bat populations in 27 states, mostly along the U.S. East Coast, as well as in five Canadian provinces.

Despite receiving two days of intensive care at PAWS, the bat dies. Alarmed, Huckabee contacts the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. To determine whether or not it was white-nose syndrome that killed the bat, Washington agency sends the bat’s body to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the nation’s top wildlife disease research facilities.

There Dr. David Blehert, branch chief of the center’s wildlife disease diagnostic lab, performs a full clinical analysis on the bat’s body — from the residue on its wings to its skins to its internal organs.

Today, the results of those tests have been announced: Federal and state wildlife experts have confirmed the bat found in North Bend had been infected with white-nose syndrome before it died.

White-nose syndrome was first detected in bats living in an Albany a cave over the winter of 2006 to 2007. A fluffy white fungus called Psuedogymnoascus destructans (or “PD”) causes white-nose syndrome, which spreads easily from bat-to-bat, particularly when hibernating over the winter. The syndrome gets its name from the characteristic white fungus that tends to collect on infected bats’ muzzles, giving them a “white-nose.”

PD can even exist in the environment — mostly in soils, rock and water — where bats and other animals, including humans, can pick it up and transport it elsewhere. The fungus can also latch itself to equipment, such as clothing and vehicles, meaning it can spread rather quickly.

“From a national perspective, this news is unfortunate, but doesn’t come as a complete surprise,” says Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another agency involved in the national white-nose syndrome response. “We have been expecting a major jump and there is a potential human-transported means of movement of the fungus.”

White-nose syndrome affects bats globally, including those living in parts of Europe and Asia, but it disproportionately appears more deadly to bats living in the United States. PD infects the skin of hibernating bats, causing severe damage — particularly to fragile tissue in the wings. It also causes physiologic problems that can disrupt bats’ hibernation, depleting fat reserves and leading to dehydration, and eventually, death.

To date, more than 6 million North American bats have died after being infected with PD. The fact that white-nose syndrome has been detected on the West Coast could mean many more bat deaths, and this could have far-reaching implications on ecosystems, human health and even the economy.

“Besides being cool animals, bats are helpful to us,” says to Catherine Hibbart, white-nose syndrome media coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They eat many insects that are considered pests. In pest control alone they provide $3 billion in economic benefits to agriculture annually.”

Mosquitoes are one important food source for bats — one that left uncontrolled as a result of bat population decline could harm human health, according to Dr. Katie Haman, a veterinarian with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“In Washington State where we have mosquito-vector diseases, the impact of less bats could be very hefty in terms of managing pests and preserving resources,” says Haman. “The lessons learned from the east is that this disease can have very large impacts” on the wider ecosystem.

Besides eating bugs, bats also help pollinate several kinds of fruit and cacti.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey, along with hundreds of state and local wildlife management/health agencies are working to minimize the potential negative impacts of white-nose syndrome on the West Coast — and to help ensure it doesn’t spread to other regions of the country. Current efforts include research into treatment of white-nose syndrome and monitoring bat populations.

To date U.S. federal, state and local wildlife agencies have spent more than $50 million on research on, as well as treatment and containment of bats with white-nose syndrome. U.S. agencies are also collaborating with international wildlife health experts in an attempt to mitigate this relatively little-understood, yet lethal disease.

Additionally, the Washington Department of Fish and Game has set up an online information page and reporting tool where members of the public can alert the agency to sick bat sightings. While white-nose syndrome has only been found in one Washington bat, wildlife health experts agree a precautionary approach is best.

“This is somewhat of a game-changer,” says Coleman, on the detection of white-nose syndrome in Washington State. “We will continue addressing research and management needs in the face of this new discovery.”

Images of the infected Washington State little brown bat. CREDIT: Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS)