With White-nose Syndrome threatening the future of bat species in the northeastern United Sates, and potentially across the continent, the National Zoo is about to create a captive colony to protect endangered Virginia big-eared bats from extinction, the Scripps Howard News Service reports.
The “insurance” colony by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park is being funded by $322,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The grant is one of six, totaling $800,000, that the Service has awarded for research “to explore the cause and control of White-nose Syndrome.”
The disease has killed at least a million bats in nine states since 2006, and solutions remain elusive. “The spread of this disease is like nothing we’ve seen before in the wildlife community,” Jane Lyder, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Interior for fish, wildlife and parks, said at a news conference announcing the grants.
WNS has spread to at least 81 sites in nine states since it was first reported at a New York cave in February 2006, Scripps Howard reporter Laura Misjak wrote. It continues to rapidly expand its range.
The disease, associated with a white, cold-loving fungus, attacks bats while they hibernate, with mortality rates exceeding 90 percent at some caves.
The zoo said the captive colony of Virginia big-eared bats is planned “to act as a lifeboat in case White-nose Syndrome strikes them in the wild.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates only about 15,000 Virginia big-eared bats (a subspecies of Townsend’s big-eared bats) survive in a few caves in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina. WNS reached Virginia and West Virginia last winter and could spread into Kentucky and North Carolina in coming months.
Scripps Howard said the National Zoo plans to maintain 40 Virginia big-eared bats at its Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia. Insect-eating bats such as these are much more difficult to care for than those that feed on fruit (the bats often seen at zoos), the news service said. “This is the first federally backed effort to raise insect-eating bats.”
Bats will be collected from a West Virginia cave in early November, before they begin hibernation, the article said. Each will be implanted with a microchip and monitored continuously, said center veterinarian Luis Padrilla. The bats will be off-limits to everyone except researchers.
The news service said the center ran a similar program with black-footed ferrets 20 years ago, when only 18 ferrets remained. The species’ population eventually grew to more than 500.
Biologists warn that it will be very difficult to bring bat populations back to pre-WNS levels because females of most bat species produce only one pup a year.
For more information on the captive-breeding project and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants and the latest WNS news, visit www.batcon.org/wns.