Since March 2016, when the first case of white-nose syndrome (WNS) was confirmed in Washington State, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has collaborated with partners, including the National Park Service (NPS), to collect samples from bats and the areas where they live. This proactive surveillance work helps researchers and wildlife managers detect the presence of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome (Pseudogymnoascus destructans), and track the spread of this catastrophic bat disease.
Fungus detected at Mount Rainier National Park
In May 2017, NPS researchers swabbed the wings and muzzle of 24 live bats in a roosting area at Mount Rainier National Park in Lewis County. These swabs were recently analyzed by the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and indicated that four of the bats - two little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) and two Yuma myotis (Myotis yumanensis) - had the fungus on them. However, no signs of white-nose syndrome were observed on any of the bats that were examined in this colony.
Bats use this roosting area in spring and summer but it is unknown where these bats hibernate during winter months. Detection of the fungal spores in this roosting area is especially important to scientists tracking the disease as it is the first confirmed detection of the fungus in Washington outside of King County, indicating the pathogen is more widespread and may be spreading.
How the fungus spreads
The fungus, which causes WNS, is harmful to bats but not humans, livestock or pets, can survive in the environment of underground hibernacula (like caves and mines) for years, and scientists are currently researching how persistent it is in other environments where bats roost such as cliffs, attics, or under bridges.
Winter hibernating areas may serve as reservoirs for the fungus. Bats that use or even briefly visit these hibernating spots could deposit or pick up the fungus and move it to other areas where bats live. Identifying these types of environmental hot spots for the fungus, and how bats may be coming in contact with and moving the fungus across the landscape, is an important part of reducing the spread of white-nose syndrome in Washington bats.
Even though the fungus is believed to be primarily transferred from bat-to-bat or bat-to-environment contact, the fungus can be inadvertently spread by humans. People can carry fungal spores on clothing, shoes, or recreation equipment that has come in contact with the fungus. Properly decontaminating shoes, clothes, and equipment used in areas where bats live is critical to reduce the risk of spreading white-nose syndrome.
Why bats matter to our environment and economy
Bats are valuable members of ecosystems around the world, saving farmers in the U.S. alone over $3 billion annually in pest control services. One colony of bats can consume many tons of insects that would otherwise consume valuable crops, or threaten human health and well-being. Some bat species eat moths or beetles that are harmful forest pests. Many species of bats are also valuable for the pollination of plants and dispersal of plant seeds.
Since white-nose syndrome was first discovered in New York in 2006-2007, millions of bats are estimated to have died due to this disease, with as much as 100% mortality in some colonies. This disease could possibly lead to the extinction of some bat species.
How you can help
You can help us track this deadly disease. Reports of sick or dead bats, as well as reports of places where groups of bats may be “hanging out”, are key to the success of tracking white-nose syndrome and working toward conserving our bats.
- Report bat observations to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at www.wdfw.wa.gov/bats. In other states, please contact your state wildlife management agency.
- Remember: Never handle a live bat! If you are exposed to a bite, scratch, or saliva from a dead or live bat, call your local public health department immediately. In Washington, contact your local Washington State Health Department District.
- Avoid entering areas where bats may be living to limit the potential of transmitting the fungus to other areas. Do not allow pets or other domestic animals to access areas where bats may be roosting or hibernating as they may act as carriers of the fungus to new sites. Avoid disturbing bats when possible, like us, bats also like to rest in peace and quiet.
- Get involved in bat conservation! Help improve bat habitats by reducing lighting around your home, maintaining bat-friendly landscaping, and protecting streams and wetlands in Washington and across North America.
For more information about how the National Park Service is working to monitor bats and address white-nose syndrome, contact Michelle Verant, Wildlife Veterinarian or Tara Chestnut, Ecologist at Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about what Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is doing, contact Abby Tobin.
Blog contributed by Rachel Blomker, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Tara Chestnut, National Park Service.