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Deadly epidemic spurs research into the lives of bats

April 11, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
White-nose syndrome is one of the deadliest wildlife diseases in modern times, killing bats by the millions. By waking up the animals more often during hibernation, the illness depletes their fat reserves, causing starvation and death. Now the discovery of infected bats on the West Coast has jumpstarted research around the Northwest. Special correspondent Michael Werner from EarthFix reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: White-nose syndrome is a disease that has been killing millions of bats across the Northeastern U.S. since 2006. Last year, the disease mysteriously appeared in the Seattle area.

As Michael Werner from Public Media’s EarthFix desk reports, researchers are racing to learn what West Coast bats are in for.

MICHAEL WERNER: Wildlife veterinarian John Huckabee is on the lookout for symptoms of a deadly and contagious disease, a disease that kills bats by the millions.

DR. JOHN HUCKABEE, Wildlife Veterinarian, PAWS Wildlife Center: There are a few small deep pigmented areas of scarring, but, overall, looks like he’s in very good shape.

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MICHAEL WERNER: This silver-haired bat doesn’t seem to be a carrier. But, a few months ago, a little brown bat arrived at his office outside Seattle.

JOHN HUCKABEE: I saw that one of the wings had a lot of contracture and some wounds, some lesions on the wing, and it had an appearance that it may have a fungal infection.

MICHAEL WERNER: The odd scarring was a possible sign of white-nose syndrome, one of the deadliest wildlife diseases in modern times.

First discovered in New York state in 2006, white-nose syndrome has killed more than 5.5 million bats and counting. The disease, which is spread primarily by bat-to-bat contact, has wreaked havoc on the large colonies of the East Coast.

JEREMY COLEMAN, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: We have seen populations of bats in eastern colonies decline, in some cases, to 100 percent.

MICHAEL WERNER: Until recently, it wasn’t known how the disease killed its victims, but new research suggests that bats with white-nose wake up more often during hibernation.

This causes them to burn through fat reserves that would usually sustain them through the winter. Starvation and death soon follow. In just a few short years, the epidemic raced across the country, spreading from the Northeast all the way to Nebraska and Oklahoma.

But then it hit an enormous natural barrier. The Rocky Mountains kept the disease from reaching Western bats, or so scientists thought, until Huckabee’s discovery. Some speculate that an infected bat may have hitched a ride on a freight truck. Others think hikers or cavers may have unwittingly carried the fungus on their clothes or equipment.

Since the first infected bat was found in the forests east of Seattle, the white-nose fungus has been found twice more in Washington state, both near the original site around North Bend.

WOMAN: We have bats in the net.

MICHAEL WERNER: Fear of a white-nose outbreak has jump-started research, not just in Washington, but around the Northwest.

In Central Oregon, ecologist Tom Rodhouse and a team of researchers are collecting data on local bats.

TOM RODHOUSE, Ecologist, National Park Service: Bats hang out in the dark. They hang out in these big cliffs and crevices that we can’t access. So, we have gone for decades without really understanding what’s happening with bats.

MICHAEL WERNER: They’re trying to assess the health and population size of Oregon’s 15 species of bats.

TOM RODHOUSE: There’s really no way for us to ascertain what’s happening with our bat populations without this kind of a coordinated large-scale survey effort.

MICHAEL WERNER: Back in Washington, researchers such as Abby Tobin are trying to learn how bats spend their winters.

ABBY TOBIN, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife: We’re trying to figure out what type of habitats they’re roosting in, if they’re hibernating through the winter, or if they are kind of active throughout, and also looking at those habitats they’re using, and whether the environment there is conducive for the fungus to thrive.

Why don’t we kind of go down a little bit and see away from the trail?

MICHAEL WERNER: She’s setting up bat detectors, specialized microphones that can pick up bats’ high-frequency calls.

ABBY TOBIN: Each bat has a unique echolocation call, and so we’re able to identify them based on that call from those acoustic detectors.

From this, I could tell this is canyon bat. And they have this typical kind of hockey stick shape look to their claw.

MICHAEL WERNER: In the lab, Tobin looks for small signs the disease is taking hold in Washington.

ABBY TOBIN: And there’s a couple little tiny little holes. I am looking right now to see if there is any damage to the wing membranes, which would be a sign that it had white-nose syndrome.

It’s important to detect white-nose syndrome early because it allows us to get a sense of where it is, and so we might be able to do some sort of containment or treatment with the animals.

MICHAEL WERNER: Despite white-nose’s deadly effects on bats, it poses no known threat to people. But many questions remain. And it could be years before definitive answers emerge.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Michael Werner in Seattle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a postscript: High school students at our Student Reporting Lab outside of Louisville, Kentucky, produced a story on the effect of white-nose syndrome on bats at Mammoth Cave National Park.

You can find that report on studentreportinglabs.org.

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