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Bat Populations In Peril Following Discovery Of White-Nose Syndrome In Washington

Nancy Heaslip
New York Department of Environmental Conservation
Bats exhibiting "Pseudogymnoascus destructans" fungus on their muzzles. This fungus causes WNS in bats.

White-nose syndrome has killed more than 6 million bats in 28 states and five Canadian provinces since it was first documented nearly a decade ago in New York. Now, Washington state has become the most recent addition to that list, after hikers found a bat with the disease on a trail in North Bend, about 30 miles east of Seattle.

The U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center verified the disease in a little brown bat found on March 11.  It died two days later.

Tests Confirmed 'Game-Changing' Find

David Blehert, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says after they received the bat’s body, they ran a series of tests which revealed that the bat had skin lesions indicative of white-nose syndrome.

“Subsequently we have also cultured the fungus "Pseudogymnoascusdestructans" from tissues of the bat. And remember, this is the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome,” Blehert said.    

The Washington find is the westernmost evidence of the rapid spread of the disease in the U.S. The evidence here represents a huge jump. It’s nearly 1,300 miles west of places in Nebraska and Minnesota, which previously represented the westernmost edge of its range here.

How White-Nose Syndrome Kills Bats

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that produces itching so severe in bats that it interrupts their hibernation. They then starve to death because they wake up before there are enough insects available for them to feed on. Their voracious appetites for bugs can keep other diseases in check such as West Nile virus, which is carried by mosquitos. Bats are also great pollinators of crops, so officials are worried.

Katie Haman, a veterinarian with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the potential effects could be widespread and devastating.

“Bats are incredibly important and the prediction from what we’ve learned from eastern North America is that this can have really huge impacts.”

Haman adds that right now, they’re not sure how severe this outbreak could be, since they only have a data set of one. But genetic tests have indicated the infected bat is native to the west. Officials will be monitoring the area near North Bend to find out whether others are affected.

Potentially Huge Impacts

The disease doesn't affect people or other animals.  But Washington state has 15 species of bats that are potentially vulnerable. And experts say the occurrence here could be even more widespread because in contrast to their east coast counterparts, western bats colonize more areas outside caves, such as abandoned buildings and cliff sides, where containment becomes more challenging. 

WDFW advises against handling animals that appear sick or are found dead.  They're asking anyone who finds a dead bat or notice bats exhibiting unusual behavior such as flying outside during the day or during freezing weather, to report their observation to the agency.  

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