GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — 2022 was another bad year for the northern long-eared bat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now considers the Great Lakes mammal endangered and on the brink of extinction.
The bats are being killed off by a disease called white-nose syndrome that was first discovered in North America in 2006.
The disease is caused by a fungus called Pseudogymnosacus destructans — or Pd for short. The fungus can take root in bats while they are hibernating. According to the White-nose Syndrome Response Team — a national organization of biologists and researchers — Pd typically starts on a bat’s face because of its exposed skin and develops a white fuzz. As the fungus grows, it makes the bats become more active and burn up the fat they need to survive the winter.
White-nose syndrome has been found in 38 states and eight Canadian provinces. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates white-nose syndrome has spread across 80% of the northern long-eared bat’s range and will completely encompass its territory by the end of the decade. It has already killed off an estimated 97% of the bat’s population.
The northern long-eared bat was listed as a threatened species in 2015. The new designation and the protections that come along with it will take effect on Jan. 30, 2023.
“This listing is an alarm bell and a call to action,” USFWS Director Martha Williams said in a release. “White-nose syndrome is decimating cave-dwelling bat species like the northern long-eared bat at unprecedented rates. The Service is deeply committed to working with partners on a balanced approach that reduces the impacts of disease and protects the survivors to recover northern long-eared bat populations.”
While the northern long-eared bat has been the hardest hit, white-nose syndrome has infected 12 different types of bats and has killed millions of animals.
The first cases of white-nose syndrome were diagnosed in 2007 in upstate New York; however the “white fuzz” was first reported the year before. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, white-nose syndrome was first reported in Michigan in the spring of 2014 and by 2015, it was reported among nine of the state’s 15 largest hibernating bat populations.
Losing bat populations means bad news for the ecosystem as a whole – including humans.
From the Michigan DNR Wildlife Action Plan published in 2015: “Bats play a critical role in pest control. It has been estimated that a single colony of bats can eat nearly 1.3 million pest insects each year. And with losses from white-nose syndrome in the northeastern United States, it is estimated between 660 and 1,320 metric tons of insects are no longer being consumed each year.”
Two key issues have allowed white-nose syndrome to spread uncontrolled. For one, biologists have no easy way to prevent it from spreading. And two, there’s currently no known cure.
The White-nose Syndrome Response Team says Pd can last a long time on hard surfaces, including clothes, shoes and outdoor gear. It’s believed that the fungus made its way to North America and continues to spread cave to cave because of accidental human transportation.
Scientists across the world are working to learn more about the disease. Several experimental treatments are in development, including a vaccine, to help save and rehabilitate what’s left of the northern long-eared bat population.