White-nose Syndrome's disastrous spread across eastern North America seems to have slowed this spring – the sixth since this devastating disease was found in Howes Cave in upstate New York. The past year has brought this and other surprises – along with few answers and some new questions – about WNS, which has now killed more than 5.7 million bats in 19 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.
Each spring, bat biologists and conservationists nervously await the grim toll of new states and provinces hit by WNS. A year ago, the disease was confirmed in five additional states and two provinces. This spring, however, only two states were added: Alabama and Missouri. While clearly good news, the results of a single year are of limited value in predicting the future. And the disease was also confirmed for the first time in endangered gray myotis (Myotis grisescens), although the WNS fungus previously had been found on the species.
Many biologists were surprised that WNS hit Alabama, one of the southernmost states of the eastern U.S. It appears we still have much to learn about this disease's potential to thrive in varied climates. Some had hoped warmer southern temperatures might slow or stop the spread. The arrival of WNS in Missouri is less surprising, although it brings with it a new dismay: this is the first confirmation of the disease west of the Mississippi River. The WNS fungus, meanwhile, was confirmed for the first time in Iowa, just north of Missouri.
The past year also witnessed groundbreaking studies that answer some basic, critical questions regarding the fungus, Geomyces destructans, that has long been associated with White-nose Syndrome. New research demonstrated unequivocally that G. destructans causes the disease. Many biologists had strongly suspected this to be the case, but U.S. Geological Survey scientists laid the last doubts to rest.
Also, research led by University of Winnipeg scientists identified G. destructans as a "novel pathogen" from Europe. This provides the strongest evidence to date that the fungus was inadvertently introduced to North America by humans. It also provides an explanation as to why the disease is so lethal for U.S. bats (with mortality rates approaching 100 percent at some sites): they have never been exposed to it before and thus have very little tolerance and resistance.
But despite the ongoing losses that we see every year, biologists remain mostly optimistic. There was no leap from eastern and midwestern North America into the western states. There are reports of the fungus at some sites, but without significant mortality. Also, we are seeing a few isolated reports of bats remaining at caves that were battered by WNS in prior years. Many people hope these survivors will act as reservoirs from which battered populations can begin to recover.
Scientists are now examining the recovery phase of bats that survive their encounter with WNS. Is there an acquired resistance after the initial exposure? What is an individual's condition after surviving infection? Can survivors still infect other bats? The answers to these questions and others will help guide the response to White-nose Syndrome as it moves into new areas.
Although scientists have yet to find a cure, there is hope. We know that, despite changes in the composition of the bat community, bats remain on the landscape. We are therefore hopeful that we will see recovery at some point in the future.
KATIE GILLIES is Bat Conservation International's Imperiled Species Coordinator and leads our efforts to combat White-nose Syndrome.
BCI grants for WNS research
Bat Conservation International's WNS Research Fund is providing $85,594 to support four critical scientific investigations that explore: early detection of the fungus that causes WNS; tools to inhibit fungal infections of hibernating bats; whether bats that survive infection demonstrate an acquired resistance to the fungus; and survivors' potential for spreading the disease.
The grants were awarded following review by non-BCI scientists of applications submitted in response to a targeted request for proposals. This research support was made possible by the generosity of Duke Energy Foundation, Invenergy LLC, JDD Holdings LLC, Leo Model Foundation Inc. and The Woodtiger Fund.
You can help BCI support vital research to combat White-nose Syndrome and meet other critical conservation challenges. Visit www.batcon.org/donate.
Top Honors for a BCI Science Advisor
BCI Science Advisor Rodrigo Medellín, a top bat biologist with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, was honored with the Whitley Fund for Nature's first Gold Award for his "outstanding individual contribution to conservation." The award was presented in London May 9 by the British charity's Patron, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal (Princess Anne).
The Gold Award includes a grant of £30,000 (about $46,750) for conservation work.
The Fund also announced seven winners of Whitley Awards for inspirational leadership. The seven, who will share £210,000 ($327,400) in project support, included BCI friend and colleague Bernal Rodriguez Herrera of Costa Rica, who was honored for "reaching across national borders to coordinate conservation action for Central America's rich array of bats."
Medellín won a Whitley Award in 2004 and credits it with helping him to found the nonprofit conservation BIOCONCIENCIA. In a documentary film presented at the recent ceremony, Sir David Attenborough said: "There is arguably no one who has done more for the conservation of bats in Latin America than 2004 Whitley Award winner, Rodrigo Medellín. His pioneering work to highlight the vital role that bats play in the ecosystem, and their importance to people's lives, has had a tremendous impact on the way bats are perceived in his native Mexico and beyond."
That award specifically notes that, thanks to conservation measures initiated by Medellín, "the lesser long-nosed bat will soon become the first species ever to be removed from Mexico's Federal List of Endangered Species."
'Wings' awards for BCI
The U.S. Forest Service International Programs has been a key BCI partner since 2005. It supports a major part of BCI Student Research Scholarships, as well as a series of workshops and other bat-education and conservation efforts in Latin America.
The Forest Service recently honored BCI staff members who help implement those projects with 2012 Wings Across the Americas Awards for achievements in conservation. The agency also recognized the critical contributions of Disney's Friends for Change.
Disney's award noted that a $100,000 grant not only supported continuation of the workshops, but also conservationists from around the region could participate. The grant is also being used to develop a website that showcases bat-conservation work around Latin America.
Amy Price, BCI Grants and Contracts Manager, was honored for overseeing BCI's drive for the Disney granting process. The funds were earned by BCI's enthusiastic members and friends, whose online votes in a funding competition put the BCI project in first place.
Bob Locke, Publications Director and Small Grants Coordinator, received an award for managing the BCI Scholarship Program, which has awarded a total of 72 scholarships supported by Forest Service International Programs for research in 24 countries.
The power of a bat gate
It took the bats more than an hour to stream out of Arizona's Eagle Creek Cave. The steady thrum of bat wings rose to a dull roar as the Mexican free-tailed bats seemed to fill the canyon as they flew off for a night of hunting insects. Jason Corbett, BCI's Western Subterranean Program Coordinator, estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 bats emerged from the cave during his visit last May.
Very impressive for a site that held one of the largest freetail colonies in the United States as late as the 1960s, but had since lost nearly all of its bats because of frequent disturbances, shooting and at least one large fire. After more than 20 years of efforts to win permits and funding (BATS, Winter 2010), a bat-friendly gate was finally installed in November 2010 by partners BCI, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Freeport McMoRan Inc., the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Wildlife Habitat Council.
The value of that long-sought gate was obvious – and inspiring – as the sun went down on that evening in May.