Essential Pittsburgh
2:17 pm
Wed July 10, 2013

White Nose Syndrome Threatens Bat Populations in Pennsylvania

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome.
Credit Marvin Moriarty / United States Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikipedia

Not even Batman can save his fellow bat friends from a deadly disease that has been threatening the bat population across Pennsylvania.  White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) is a disease caused by a fungus that, when introduced into underground workings such as caves and mines, begins to eat away at live skins cells of hibernating bats. 

This originally European fungus is cold loving, meaning it prefers very cold, damp underground environments, precisely where non-migratory bats tend to flock for hibernation. When bats hibernate, however, their immune systems completely shut down creating what Endangered Mammal Specialist Greg Turner calls “the perfect storm.”

Bats of all types play an important role in the Pennsylvania ecosystem.  According to Turner, each bat per year eats about 900,000 insects.  With the demise of millions of bats in the state, during the summer season, there are potential health risks for humans and “farmers could potentially see damage to their crops.” 

Turner says farmers are able to use less pesticides because of insect consumption by bats, but if the 98.8% decline in the bat population continues, there will be costly and unfortunate results.

The epicenter of WNS was found in 2006 in Albany, New York. By 2009 it had entered Pennsylvania and traveled south to West Virginia. Six of the nine species of bats in PA are affected by WNS (the other three migrate south in the winter and do not hibernate).  Currently Turner is working with researchers at Bucknell University to find some sort of treatment or cure to WNS. So far they have developed variations of fungicides and natural compounds in an attempt to combat the disease, but the compounds have killed the bats faster than WNS.

Turner remains hopeful, however, saying that the best option will likely be to see if the juvenile bats, those born to surviving bats of WNS, will develop some sort of immunity to the disease. Research will likely take a few years because they would like to look at bat populations over an extended period of time.