Flying Blind: A Mysterious Disease Has Nearly Wiped out Bat Populations in Parts of North America and No One Knows How to Stop It

By Soltes, John | Earth Island Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Flying Blind: A Mysterious Disease Has Nearly Wiped out Bat Populations in Parts of North America and No One Knows How to Stop It


Soltes, John, Earth Island Journal


JACKIE KASHMER BUNDLES UP against the cold and walks past broken corn stalks and pyramids of freshly cut firewood to the outer reaches of her expansive property along New Jersey's border with Pennsylvania. There, next to a pigpen, she enters a barn-sized building, kicks off her shoes and heads to the temporary home of her adopted loved ones.

This is the New Jersey Bat Sanctuary, Kashmer's small rehabilitation center with the unenviable task of caring for hundreds of bats suffering from white-nose syndrome (WNS), the disease that has wiped out millions of these flying mammals and pushed some bat species closer to extinction.

The back room, where the ailing bats hang in their upside-down world, is like a miniature hospital ward. The infected ones little brown bats, one of the species that has been hit the hardest are frail and almost skeletal. Their wings are blotchy and translucent, like crepe paper stretched too far. Occasionally, Kashmer and her assistant name some of the more memorable cases. Winston was the first WNS patient. He arrived in bad shape and within a few hours had bitten off" what remained of his wings. The severely dehydrated animal lost some skin on his bones and was left with ears that looked like they were disintegrating. Winston has since recovered, but his cousins don't always fare as well.

Kashmer, usually a smiling lady with a penchant for laughing, is serious as she holds one of the sickest bats in her gloved hands, inspecting the animal carefully. The bat's eyes seem swollen shut and its emaciated body fits all too snugly in her palm. With uncoordinated movements the little guy curls its wings around its body, like a child pulling a blanket closer for warmth.

"If you are not monitoring constantly, you're going to come in and they're going to be dead," says Kashmer, a court reporter by day and a kind of Batwoman by night.

The New Jersey Bat Sanctuary is one outpost in a global community of researchers, conservationists, and government officials who are scrambling to understand the deadly epidemic and find some way to counteract it. It's a community that has been in crisis mode since the disease was first spotted in a cave in New York state in February 2006. Today at least 11 species of hibernating bats including four species and subspecies that are listed as endangered have been impacted by or are at risk from WNS.

In January, the US Fish and Wildlife Service released the most up-to-date mortality figures. Government officials estimate that the disease has killed at least 5.7 million bats. Some biologists say the total might be closer to 7 million dead animals in the last six years.

"It's probably the fastest decline of wild mammals in recorded history," says Justin Boyles, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Tennessee who has been on the forefront of WNS research. "Everything's gone in some of the northeastern caves."

The epidemic threatens to permanently disrupt the ecology of the Northeast, where bats play a vital role in keeping insect populations in check. Equally worrisome, biologists have few ideas about stopping the fungus. Even as scientists uncover new information about this mysterious disease, the infection continues its implacable march--and bats, typically a staple silhouette on a midsummer evening, continue to fall, sometimes right out of the sky:

THE LATEST RESEARCH ON was, published last October by the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, is simultaneously promising and frustrating. The good news is that the fungus causing the mass deaths has been positively identified Geomyces destructans, it's been dubbed, an apt name. It's clear to biologists that infected bats can spread the disease to healthy cave-dwellers hanging on the wall next to them. "It looks like the most efficient way for it to spread is bat to bat," says researcher Boyles.

Once infected, the bats develop a white fungus that covers their muzzles, ears, and wings as they hibernate through the winter. …

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