Infected bat population in Ohio worries scientists, ecosystem impact unclear

Biologists work to stop transmission

CLEVELAND - A new killer fungus has arrived. The fungus spreads fast -- and once a certain creature is infected, its life is over.

Experts knew this would reach Ohio -- it was just a question of when. Now, that is no longer a question.

Federal and state biologists on Wednesday confirmed White Nose Syndrome is killing bats in Ohio. WNS is a disease caused by a fungus that appeared for the first time just a few years ago.

Bats are the top predator for many insects we humans consider pesky, such as mosquitoes, beetles and moths. Each night, out-of-hibernation bats eat their weight in insects. So the fungus could potentially have a major impact on the ecosystem.

The fungus in Ohio was confirmed in hibernating bats in the Wayne National Forest in Lawrence County, in an abandoned mine. While this news is the first confirmation, biologists expect many more cases, possibly leading to a species’ extinction. The anticipation of a possibly devastating impact is based on the spread of WNS.

“We caught the introduction of this disease very early,” said Katrina Schultes, U.S. Forest Service biologist at Wayne National Forest during a conference call Wednesday. “But that could change very quickly.”

Geomyces destructans first appeared five years ago in New York State and it’s been spreading further west and south each year since. The fungus leads to White nose syndrome in bats, or WNS. The disease got its name from how the fungus appears and grows into white tufts on the muzzles of infected bats. But that may not be how it kills the host.

Jeremy Coleman is the National WNS Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Coleman explained the fungus damages a bat’s wing membranes, which will cause dehydration. While the disease destroys wing tissue, dehydration as a cause of death is just a hypothesis, Coleman said. He added scientists suspect it may be a combination of multiple effects from the fungus.

Since biologists do not yet know the exact cause of death, they also do not know how to prevent it. But wildlife experts are using what they do know, to cut down transmission.

WNS is believed to be transmitted bat to bat, and people can be carriers of fungal spores on clothes or other items exposed to contaminated sites. But good news for us -- WNS does not affect human health. That’s partly because the fungus requires lower temperatures survive. In fact, that’s why warmer temperature may help slow fungi-caused deaths.

Between now and the middle of next month, bats will emerge from hibernation in caves or mines across the continent. In Ohio, most hibernacula are in the southern part of the state -- like Lawrence County, where the first confirmation came from.

In Northeast Ohio, there are a few places where large numbers of bats hibernate. But those locations are not disclosed to the public, state and federal biologists say, because the hibernacula could include the Indiana Bat. The Indiana Bat is one of seven species in Ohio, and it is also an endangered species. Because it’s already endangered, wildlife experts are concerned over possible extinction.

Coleman said there are a number of research projects on treatment options happening now on this fungus. But, “at this stage, we have nothing to treat the bat” or kill the fungus, he said.

So how many bats could be killed by WNS? Scientists don’t know. Tracking bat populations are extremely difficult. Federal and state agencies visit some caves and mines during winter, but others are too dangerous for biologists to enter, said Angela Boyer, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Between now and the middle of April, bats will emerge from hibernation in Ohio. When they go out to eat each night, tracking becomes more difficult. But biologists got a head start here.

“We tried to count (migrating bats) before White Nose got here, knowing it would come,” said Boyer.

A big preventive measure against transmission has been to close caves and mines on federal land, and check locations already closed to the public.

Individuals can also help slow the spread by staying out of caves and mines that are not closed or gated. And if you see more than six dead bats, or large numbers of bats flying while it’s still cold outside, especially near an area where bats hibernate, call the ODNR Division of Wildlife at 1-800-WILDLIFE, or contact biologists at wildinfo@dnr.state.oh.us .

In just a few years, WNS killed more than a million cave-hibernating bats in the eastern portion North America, according to the biologists who are studying the fungus. What happens in the next few years is going to be a wait and see game when it comes to the ecosystem.

“We don’t really know what those impacts will be,” Coleman said.

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