Lethal bat disease spreads, as experts search for clues

Tiny brown bat.
(J Jongsma / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Despite their propensity to be cast as scary villains in horror movies, bats are actually vital to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. That's because they eat insects that otherwise would destroy food crops and other plant life. So it's no wonder that wildlife experts were alarmed when a case of a fungal disease in bats called white-nose syndrome was reported in Washington state in mid-March--the first appearance of the illness in the Pacific Northwest.

White-nose syndrome, which is almost always fatal, was first reported in New York 10 years ago and has slowly spread west, killing 7 million bats, according to the Washington Post. But it had not been seen further west than Nebraska until a hiker found a dying brown bat in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. He brought the bat to a veterinarian, but it did not survive.

Some scientists who study bats are concerned that the western U.S. will become a second epicenter of white-nose syndrome. "I really do think this is a big leap. Now we're going to see it radiate from that new point," said Katie Gillies, director of the imperiled species program at Texas-based Bat Conservation International, in an interview with the Post. "It's like having breast cancer and finding that it's metastasized."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to perform genetic testing on the bat, as well as an analysis of the disease it contracted. They hope to identify the nature and origin of the disease strain. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has also started a surveillance program aimed at controlling the spread of white-nose syndrome.

The disease has affected about a half-dozen species of bats and has been found in 28 states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Gillies told the Post there are 15 species of western bats now at risk. That's a major worry for farmers: Bats eat so many insects that their value to the farming industry is estimated to be $3 billion a year.

"Bats are a crucial part of our ecology and provide essential pest control for our farmers, foresters and city residents, so it is important that we stay focused on stopping the spread of this fungus," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in a statement from the USGS.

- here's the USGS statement
- get more at the Washington Post