Volume 35, Issue 2, 2016

WNS jumps the gap

By Andrew Walker, BCI Executive Director

This essay was originally to have been on the importance of zoos to the future of endangered bats. Zoos have been with us for at least 5,500 years, and the menageries of exotic animals created by pharaohs, emperors and kings were monuments to royal power. The modern zoo began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a means of educating and entertaining the citizenry—but also as a display of national power. In the last 30 years, zoos have evolved further to become important centers of conservation as highlighted in this issue of Bats.

But I must turn to distressing news regarding White-nose Syndrome (WNS), the non-native, fungus-caused disease that has killed millions of bats across Eastern North America. It appeared for a while that the spread of WNS across the country would be slowed as the disease approached the Great Plains, given the small number of caves and mines that bridge the eastern and western halves of the country. BCI has been working on strategies to fight the fungus if it showed up in Plains caves, using a combination of experimental treatments.

But WNS has jumped the gap with a vengeance. Hikers 30 miles east of Seattle found in March a sick female little brown bat and brought it to a wildlife rehabilitation center, where it died shortly thereafter. The National Wildlife Health Center confirmed it to have full-blown WNS. Further testing revealed it was a local bat, not an eastern transplant. This jump of nearly 1,300 miles suggests an unsuspecting individual unwittingly carried the fungus west.

Unlike many eastern bats, in the Western United States bats hibernate dispersed in low numbers in cliffs and crevices, which makes finding and treating the hibernacula this bat came from an all but impossible job. Survey teams are nonetheless being assembled. BCI’s extensive experience with western caves and mines—and our WNS program director, Katie Gillies’ 15 years of experience studying bats in the West—will help these teams locate and prioritize the most important hibernacula for monitoring and, we hope, eventual treatment to control the fungus.

The scientific, cave tourism and caving communities must redouble their commitment to decontamination, especially in western states, to prevent additional geographic jumps. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must move quickly to complete their internal review for listing the little brown bat under the Endangered Species Act—and act with more courage after the Service’s dreadful decision on the northern long-eared bat (see page 17). And we must accelerate research and testing of existing and new experimental treatments for the disease.

Zoos have not yet learned how to breed insectivorous bats in captivity, which may need larger spaces to fly than most fruit bats in captivity. But this terrible news on White-nose Syndrome is one more reason for all of us to begin learning how.

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