Five new states and two more Canadian provinces joined the grim list of those facing the devastation of White-nose Syndrome (WNS) this past spring. But even as those bleak reports were arriving, bits of hopeful news were emerging from the research front.
The latest victims are Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina and Ohio in the United States and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada. WNS, which has killed well over a million bats in North America since 2006, is now confirmed in 17 states and 4 provinces.
Two additional states – Missouri and Oklahoma – were confirmed in 2010 with the Geomyces destructans fungus that is the probable cause of White-nose Syndrome.
Both those states, however, report that examinations this year of the initial hibernation sites and the surrounding areas revealed neither the disease nor the fungus. Scientists are trying to determine what that non-discovery might mean. The new reports came during the Annual White-nose Syndrome Symposium in Little Rock, Arkansas, in May, which BCI helped organize and support.
Last year's Oklahoma report was especially troubling, as it was perched on the edge of the American West, which has so far been spared the ravages of WNS. And the fungus was confirmed for the first time on a uniquely western bat species – cave myotis (Myotis velifer).
"Last year WNS seemed poised to jump the continental divide into western states" said Mylea Bayless, who leads BCI's WNS response. "I hope this is a sign of delayed or diminished virulence as the disease moves south and west. We still have so much to learn about WNS transmission and epidemiology that I don't think we can breathe easy just yet."
Among reports of research progress at the symposium, one of the most hopeful emerged from site-by-site population surveys from 2007 through 2011 in the northeastern states. Although many hibernating colonies suffered declines of 50 percent to more than 90 percent in the first two years after the arrival of WNS, the diminished populations seem to have stabilized – at least for now. The surveys offer tantalizing hints that survivors of the initial infection may, in fact, survive, perhaps with the potential to re-establish these battered populations.
Two researchers offer what could be a partial explanation. These scientists confirm that at least some bats with WNS-ravaged wings (a common result of the disease) were recovering on their own.
Nathan Fuller of Boston University photographed and attached identifying bands on little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) with severe wing damage after hibernation. (Little browns are the species that is most severely hammered by WNS.) Those that were subsequently recaptured showed significant healing within as little as two weeks. The results, he said, suggest that some bats can heal from severe wing damage and thus may not experience increased mortality during the active [summer foraging] season." Fuller is also studying whether WNS-related wing damage affects reproductive success.
Chris Dobony, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Army, described a colony of little brown myotis at the Fort Drum Military Installation in northern New York that has been monitored by Army biologists for years. When WNS hit, he said, "the colony populations plummeted, along with the biologists' optimism about the colony's survival."
But over the next few years, Dobony said, "an interesting thing happened. Individual bats that had been monitored for years were not only healing from wing and other damage associated with WNS and surviving within the summer maternity season, but they were seen again the following spring and summer."
Many questions remain about the long-term prospects for these survivors, he said, but "right now it is a silver lining in the dark cloud that is White-nose Syndrome."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced at the symposium that Congress has provided the agency $1.9 million, following on an appropriation of the same amount in 2010, to support WNS research and prevention during the remainder of this fiscal year.
Meanwhile, BCI is assisting The Nature Conservancy's Tennessee Chapter with an especially innovative concept – an artificial cave that, its proponents hope, could provide a WNS-free sanctuary for hibernating bats and a test bed for potential treatments.
Fungicides that can kill the WNS fungus have been tested and are available, but using them in natural caves would be extremely difficult given the complexity of most caves. Also, such treatments are generally unacceptable because the chemicals would destroy the diverse animals and other organisms that fill cave ecosystems. An artificial cave, built underground near existing bat colonies, would have no natural ecosystem and could be safely treated to destroy spores of the fungus when no bats are present.
An initial design for a test cave that could house tens of thousands of bats has been developed and is being reviewed, with the goal of having this initial cave available for hibernating bats this winter.
You can help BCI combat White-nose Syndrome and other critical threats to bats. Visit www.batcon.org/wnsbats.
An inspiration for a long struggle
When Frances Sauter discovered bats and the tragedy of White-nose Syndrome, she set out to learn the facts – and then to do something about it. Along the way, she greatly impressed the professionals with the depth and insight of her questions. She also proved a welcome inspiration for some of those who struggle against the daunting challenge of WNS every day.
Not bad for a 14-year-old ninth grader.
"To say it can sometimes be a personal challenge to remain positive while working on WNS would be an understatement. We often hear: 'Is there any good news?'" said Ann Froschauer, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's National WNS Communications Leader. "But occasionally, something amazing happens and we are reminded that there are a lot of people who ... really care about what we do. Including at least one extremely bright young woman who has not yet learned to drive a car, had a full-time job or even seen a bat in person."
Frances, of Lynden, Washington, says she "was trying to conjure up a topic for a research paper" when she happened upon an article in National Geographic magazine about the devastating impact White-nose Syndrome has on bats."
"My English assignment required me to ask the question: 'So what?' Before this assignment, I knew literally nothing about bats. Now I know how important bats are to the ecosystem and the economy," she wrote in a blog that Froschauer invited her to post on a federal website.
Frances contacted Froschauer for information, and was soon exchanging emails with such WNS experts as microbiologist David Blehert of the U.S. Geological Survey, Mylea Bayless, who leads BCI's WNS response, and wildlife biologist Ella Rowan of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Froschauer, like others who have encountered this young woman, noted that her questions "were like a graduate student's inquiry. And not only did she ask the really hard questions about WNS, she wanted to do something about it."
And so she did.
She wrote letters to a number of publications describing the catastrophe WNS is visiting upon bats and the ecological and economic costs of losing our bats. One of her letters – a call for action by the public – was featured on Capital Press, an agricultural-news website that serves western states.
Frances recently qualified as a Bat Ambassador after a training course with Bats Northwest and hopes to give bat presentations to the local Boys and Girls Club, where she already volunteers. She's also offering presentations for the elementary school she attended not too long ago.
"The more I read," she wrote, "the more I became convinced that WNS is causing some major league problems for bats in North America. But I am confident that if people are cognizant of WNS, they will take the bull by the horns. Scientists can't do it alone. They need public support to make a difference. Bats need the help of ordinary laymen like you and me."
Frances Sauter has proven that, at least as far as bats are concerned, she is anything but ordinary. For Rowan, Frances brings "glimmers of positivity to what has been over five years of bad news."
The challenge is great. But, as Frances Sauter so ably demonstrates, each of us can contribute to the search for solutions. Make a difference.
To help BCI support WNS research and other critical threats facing bats today, go to www.batcon.org/donate.
Protecting bats from wind turbines
A BCI-led study on curtailing wind turbines – temporarily shutting them down during low-wind periods at night – to reduce the bat fatalities at wind-energy facilities was featured on the cover of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a journal of the Ecological Society of America. The research demonstrated that curtailment could reduce bat kills by up to 93 percent with minimal annual power losses.
The study, conducted at the Casselman Wind Power Project in Pennsylvania, found that applying curtailment procedures to all 23 Casselman turbines during bats' 2½-month migration period would reduce total electricity output by less than one percent for the year. Lead author Ed Arnett, BCI's Director of Programs, discussed the study in a podcast for the Ecological Society. It can be heard at: www.frontiersinecology.org/beyond/
Arnett and Wind Energy Project Manager Michael Schirmacher also represented BCI in Trondheim, Norway, at the first international conference on wind energy and wildlife. The session dramatically illustrated the worldwide impacts of accelerating wind-energy development on wildlife of many kinds. More than 300 participants from 30 countries shared their research and experience in managing this alternative energy source.
Arnett served on the science program committee and was part of an expert panel on challenges and solutions. Schirmacher presented a poster on research using acoustic deterrents to reduce bat kills at turbines. The deterrents broadcast ultrasonic noise that is designed to interfere with bats' echolocation system to such an extent that they steer clear of the turbines.
The study found that using deterrents reduced bat fatalities by 18 to 62 percent. That is significantly less than the reductions from curtailment, however, which suggests that this technology is not yet ready for wide-scale deployment. Researchers continue modifying and testing devices in hopes of developing a bat-saving system for widespread use.
A top honor for Tom Kunz
Biology Professor Thomas Kunz, one of the world's top bat scientists, a BCI Science Advisor and valued partner for many years, is receiving Boston University's highest faculty honor. University President Robert A. Brown named Kunz, now in his 40th year at BU, as a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor. This, Brown said, "is a wonderful recognition of his career at Boston University and the national and international recognition of his research."
Forest Service awards
Bat Conservation International and several staff members received awards from the U.S. Forest Service Wings Across the Americas program for outstanding achievements in conservation.
Christa Weise, Coordinator of BCI's Bats of Latin America and the Caribbean Program, received a 2011 Wings Across the Americas Award in education and research for her leadership of bat-conservation workshops in Latin America. BCI was also honored with an award (accepted by Executive Director Nina Fascione), as was longtime BCI contract-biologist Janet Tyburec, who leads BCI's workshops in North America. BCI Founder Merlin Tuttle received a certificate of recognition.
Dan Taylor, who leads BCI's Water for Wildlife Program, received a Wings Across the Americas Award for habitat management and wetland-restoration efforts on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. Jason Corbett of the Western Subterranean Program received a certificate of recognition.
The awards were presented at the 76th Annual North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, in March.