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White Nose Disease in Bats: What You Need to Know and How to Help

White Nose Disease in Bats: What You Need to Know and How to Help

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Bats serve a vital role in nature. When a disease, like an emergent disease of White Nose Syndrome, takes a hold of a colony of bats, the entire ecosystem is affected.  

According to the National Park Service, a single bat can eat up to 1,200 insects, including mosquitos in one night. Figure a typical bat-house colony has up to 200 bats, that is a lot of natural insect control around your home.  

White Nose Disease in Bats: What You Need to Know and How to Help

Bats are one of nature’s flying mammals that has gotten a bad rap, primarily due to Hollywood movies. They are not the incarnations of vampires and blood-thirsty monsters. This could not be further from the truth. Bats serve a vital role both in rural settings as well as urban neighborhood settings. Pest and insect control is the name of the game when it comes to bat colonies.

White Nose Disease in Bats: What You Need to Know and How to Help

Protecting this little mammal is vital for both balance in the local insect populations, but also, more importantly, they deserve to be taken care of. Preventing and treating white-nose disease in a bat colony is not just good for the colony, it is good for us as well.

Let’s address what the white-nose disease is and how this syndrome is changing the landscape of nature.  

What Is White Nose Disease?

The white-nose disease, which is more commonly referred to as white-nose syndrome, or simply, WNS, is much more sinister and serious than the name may sound. It not only affects a bat’s immediate health but also causes long-term health issues that will lead to death.

White-nose syndrome is the result of a living fungus named psuedogymnoascus destructans. This pd fungus invades and consumes or ingests the bats’ skin during hibernation. White-nose syndrome appears as a powdery white substance on a bat’s nose, ears, and skin of bats.  

Not only is this damaging and unhealthy for the bats, but it also interrupts their hibernation. The bats are constantly waking up and burning up the crucial fat reserves needed to properly hibernate.

The spread of the disease has now been identified in all parts of the United States. Originating in Eurasia, it does not decimate bat colonies as it does in the United States. This is perhaps due to the possibility of a couple of factors.

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The coevolutionary process of building up immunities to p. destructans along with subtle ecological differences. According to researcher Amanda Adams of Bat Conservation International. Adams says that Eurasian bats went through the same thing millions of years ago, but no one was there to document it.

It could be possible that North American bats are already genetically adapting to the disease and building their immune systems. In a study of Northeastern bats, those animals are showing genetic markers that set them apart from the same species of bats who had died from white-nose syndrome. This shows that the animal is adapting and has a great chance of defeating this devastating disease.

dead bats from botit dot botany doe wisc dot edu
A lot of dead bats on a cave floor
photo credit: botit.botany.wisc.edu

Why Should We Care About White Nose Disease?

Bats are a huge resource for our farmers. As mentioned earlier, a single bat can consume up to 1,200 insects in one night. Multiply that by a colony of hundreds or thousands of bats. The effects of insect control by bats alone can save farmers billions in insecticides per year.

In fact, bats contribute to over 3.7 billion dollars a year in insect control for farmers per year. That is a critical role! If a colony of bats is wiped out due to white-nose syndrome, it will cause the farmers to use more pesticides to protect their crops from the thousands of insects per year. Multiply that over the years it would take to re-colonize an area with bats, and the costs become astronomical. These costs are passed on to the consumer, so it affects people across the board.

help bats from white nose diseases
You can get a bat house for your own yard!

Most bats typically live from 5 to 15 years in the wild. At the age of maturity, a bat will only birth one pup per year. Protecting our bat population is essential for a balanced ecosystem.

White-nose syndrome has claimed the lives of over 1,000,000 bats since 2006 according to the National Library of Medicine. The disease has been documented in 44 states as well as Canada and Europe and depleted 99% of the bat populations in those 44 states.

Without these furry little flying mammals, our ecosystem is in jeopardy. Food costs will increase as farmers will be forced to spend more money on insecticides. So, protecting bats by helping develop a cure for this white-nose syndrome is critical.

white nose on bat wing from daves garden dot com
See how it hurts the bat wings also? photo credit: davesgarden.com

Can Bats Survive White Nose Disease?

White-nose syndrome in bats has been compared to the coronavirus in humans according to Kate Landwig from Virginia Tech University. The fungal spores can survive in a cold cave for up to 10 years without a host to feed on. Who knew there was a cold-loving fungus

Without proper treatment, most bats will not survive white-nose disease through the hibernating winter. Those who do survive, are likely to die in the spring due to the lack of fat reserves used up during the winter hibernation. This mortality rate is not a good thing.

Provide a safe bat habitat
Provide a safe bat habitat!

There Is Hope For The Fight Against White-Nose Syndrome!

Recent research shows that there is a probiotic bacteria treatment that has been shown to reduce the impacts of the disease and give struggling bat populations a chance of survival. The bacteria grows naturally on the bat’s skin. When applied to the infected areas, researchers are seeing survival rates increasing to 50% over those animals without the treatment.

While treatment has yet to reach a 100% survival rate, 50% is a good place to be at this time considering no treatment was available less than 5 years ago as this was a very recent study.

According to disease ecologist, Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn, from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, “Evolution against this disease is happening very quickly in bat populations.” Any breakthroughs or evidence that shows hope for these animals is encouraging and exciting.

Although the North American little brown bats and big brown bats have shown a natural evolution to self-combating this disease, other bat species have yet to show the same evolution.

Therefore, research and development to find a 100% and lasting cure for the white-nose syndrome are of the utmost import to the other bat populations across North America. Just think of the northern long-eared bat, silver-haired bats, big-eared bat, and gray bat. This fungal disease

USA Cave list

How Do You Know If A Bat Has White Nose Disease?

White-nose syndrome is evident in almost all bat populations by the signature white fuzz or white fur on and around the nose and other portions of the bat’s bare skin from that white fungus.

Not all bats with psuedogymnoascus destructans on their skin become sick. In fact, there are currently several species of bats that show no signs of white-nose syndrome even though they carry the geomyces destructans.

For those bats that do get sick, scientists can identify white-nose syndrome by looking at their skin under a microscope. The skin will have pockets in their skin caused by the disease. If you see bats flying around during the winter, when they are normally hibernating, chances are, it is due to white-nose syndrome. They are out in search of food with this unusual behavior.

Dead bats on the floor of caves or around the entrance to caves is another likely sign that a colony has been infected with white-nose syndrome. Be sure to report any abnormal behavior or signs of bats infected with the white-nose disease to your local animal control or wildlife center. Never approach or handle a sick, injured or dead bat.

The natural solution to backyard pest control
The natural solution to backyard pest control!

How To Help A Bat with White Nose Disease

Preventing white-nose disease from spreading to other bat colonies throughout the United States is the first step in helping these animals.

The Wildlife Service recommends the following:

  1. Stay out of closed caves that house hibernating bats and maternity colonies.
  2. Report dead or infected bats to a Park Ranger or personnel immediately. 
  3. Never touch or pick up a dead, healthy, or infected bat. You can unwillingly transport the disease without knowing it to live bats.
  4. Although white-nose syndrome is not contagious to humans, some bats can carry rabies and other dangerous diseases, and getting infected could be serious to humans.
  5. Educate yourself about white-nose syndrome. Especially if you live near colonies of bats. 
  6. Here is a link to some informative videos on White Nose Syndrome.
  7. Get involved! There are many ways to get involved to help bats survive and defeat white-nose syndrome. 
  8. WhiteNoseSyndrome.org has a healthy list of events and opportunities for you to get involved with.  

We all need a little help once in a while. Bats who have contracted white-nose syndrome have almost no hope of survival without proper treatment. Do whatever you can to help these animals by volunteering or donating monetarily for research and development. Contact your local wildlife center if you spot an infected bat to help prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome.

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Is White Nose Disease Contagious?

White-nose disease is not an infectious disease that is contagious to humans, but highly contagious to other bats. There are currently no case studies that show white-nose syndrome to have infected any other species of animals or birds. Thousands of people have visited caves where white-nose syndrome has infected those colonies. Not one case of white-nose has been documented to be a concern to human health.

Anyone who comes into direct or indirect contact with a bat with white-nose syndrome is encouraged not to handle the animal and if they do, thoroughly clean any exposed skin or hair and wash all clothing in hot, soapy water.

Although white-nose syndrome is not contagious to humans, bats do carry other diseases that are infectious to humans and other species of animals. Rabies is one of the most serious diseases bats carry that can be transferred and infected to human beings and other animals.

In addition to being infected by another disease, touching an infected bat allows you to become a carrier of the white-nose disease and unwillingly or knowingly infect other colonies of bats, should you visit any other cave bats.

Do you have a bat BnB?
Do you have a Bat BnB?

Wrap Up To White Nose Disease: What You Need To Know and How to Help

White-nose disease is a serious and real threat to over 17 bat species in North America. While some progress has been successful in the treatment of the fungal pathogen, it is still wreaking havoc on bat populations. 

Through the help of volunteer organizations as well as federal grant monies for research, helping these mammals is showing some success. In some areas, the brown bat is showing a 50% decrease in mortality rates in colonies.

Everything organic on Earth is an evolution poem in motion. There is a constant battle between species for life. Some species win, and unfortunately, some lose. We just don’t want to see bats as an endangered species.

white nose disease in bats from witd things sanctuary dot org
photo credit: withildngssanctuary.org

When we have the opportunity to engage and make a difference for the better in that process, goodwill always be a by-product. While helping bat colonies survive this pandemic may seem trivial, it ultimately helps mankind as well. Developing cures for animals leads to research and procedures that will help cure diseases we as humans face.

The next time you see or hear a bat, do not cringe at its Hollywood persona. Instead, see it as a fellow mammal trying to live its best life as you and I do every day.  

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