When it Comes to White Nose Syndrome, Scientists are Stepping Up to the Bat

Wildlife rehabilitator and bat specialist Maureen Heidtmann climbs into an old Pennsylvania church retrofitted into a giant bat house.
Wildlife rehabilitator and bat specialist Maureen Heidtmann climbs into an old Pennsylvania church retrofitted into a giant bat house.

Fact or fiction: Bats are rodents with wings, blind creatures that tangle in your hair and spread rabies like wildfire.

If you hold any of these things to be true, you're wrong-but you're not alone.

Myths about bats are commonplace, says bat rehabilitator and specialist Maureen Heidtmann. They're also detrimental. As the mammal's populations continue to plummet due to a mysterious disease known as white nose syndrome (WNS)-so named because the affected bats exhibit a white fungus on their noses-a lack of human appreciation for their fragile predicament may have irrevocable effects on the environmental order.

So why should the average person care about bats? Because, says Heidtmann, bats provide a crucial form of pest control relied on by farmers and gardeners everywhere. Just one little brown bat-the species most common in Connecticut-can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes an hour. Other species do their part, too, eating "garden pests and crop-destroying pests," says Heidtmann. In some areas of the U.S. and the world, bat species can be found whose roles include seed dispersal and pollination.

In a press release issued earlier this year, state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Amey Marrella warned, "The outbreak of white nose syndrome...that we are seeing...and...the massive die-off of the bat population that it is causing is also likely to have serious impacts on agriculture, forestry, and other sectors of our economy."

WNS's devastating impact on bats is particularly obvious when one sees the statistics. In total, Heidtmann estimates, more than 1 million bats have died in the past four years.

Locally, "just three short years ago, one of Connecticut's largest hibernacula [site of hibernation] had over 3,300 wintering bats," says DEP Supervising Wildlife Biologist Jenny Dickson. "This year fewer than a dozen remain; all but one showed active signs of WNS. The outlook for their survival is grim."

This much-desired survival is compromised by the bats' slow rate of reproduction and the fact that scientists have so far been unable to determine the cause of WNS, though some have proposed it might have been triggered by climate change or the aggressive use of pesticides to combat mosquitoes.

What's more, says Heidtmann, "It's still not yet known whether it is the fungus causing the deaths or whether the fungus is a secondary syndrome of some underlying disease...Scientists are still trying to get a handle on [that so] they can figure out what to do."

What is known is that bats with WNS, according to the DEP, "have a white fungus on their noses and occasionally other parts of their bodies that is only visible during hibernation.

"There are strong indications that this fungus [Geomyces destructans] is a non-native, invasive species," says the DEP. "The exact role of the fungus in bat deaths is still unclear, but it is well-documented to alter normal sleeping patterns of hibernating bats, causing them to use all of their stored fat reserves before winter ends."

Heidtmann says that, if the bat population is going to be saved, it's crucial for people to understand WNS as well as to be conscious of their potential role in its spread.

"I would urge people to stay out of caves because it's possible that [the fungus, while it doesn't impact humans] is being transmitted by people from cave to cave," she says.

Until a direct cause of WNS is pinpointed and a cure found, "it's important for people to be sensitive to bats," says Heidtmann. "I understand people not wanting a colony of bats in the house, but there are safe ways to evict them and then it would be good to put up a bat house.

"Just being sensitive to bats...can go a long way toward helping them."

You can learn more about bats and white nose syndrome at the lecture "Where Have all the Bats Gone?" on Sunday, Aug. 15 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Chester Meeting House. DEP Supervising Wildlife Biologist Jenny Dickson will present a field report on the topic. A reception will follow. The lecture is sponsored by the Chester Conservation Commission, Chester Land Trust, Connecticut River Estuary Regional Planning Agency, Connecticut River Gateway Commission, Deep River Land Trust, East Haddam Land Trust, Essex Land Trust, Haddam Land Trust, Lynde Point Land Trust, Old Lyme Conservation Trust, and Westbrook Land Conservation Trust.

Healthy little brown bats.
Healthy little brown bats.
Hibernating little brown bats with white nose syndrome.
Hibernating little brown bats with white nose syndrome.

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