Deadly bat disease bad news for people too
A deadly bat disease has arrived in Pocahontas County with the potential to devastate bat populations, alter the ecosystem and impact the economy.
Scientists named the disease White Nose Syndrome (WNS) because of a white fungus found on the face and bodies of infected bats. The disease is not believed to affect humans, pets or livestock, but has resulted in bat colony mortality rates as high as 90%. According to the Ozark Underground Laboratory, survivors are often crippled and die during the next summer or next hibernation period.
Compounding the problem, bats have a very low reproduction rate for animals their size. Most bats in northeastern North America have only one or two pups a year and many females do not breed until their second year.
First discovered near Albany, New York, in 2006, WNS now has been confirmed in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee and West Virginia. The cause of the disease remains a mystery to researchers, who have not discovered if the fungus causes the disease or is merely a symptom.
On Tuesday, Jack Wallace, wildlife biologist with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, confirmed that bats collected at a cave on Drop Mountain in Pocahontas County tested positive for the disease. The discovery represents the first time the disease has been confirmed west of the Allegheny Front.
Another suspect bat from a cave in Greenbrier County has been sent for testing and results are expected soon. Wallace said the Greenbrier County bat appeared to have the fungus on its wings.
The loss of bats in affected areas is likely to result in more bugs, affecting both recreation and agriculture.
Bats can consume their body weight in insects in a single night's feeding. According to the West Virginia University Extension Service, a little brown bat can eat up to 600 mosquitoes in an hour. One study showed that 150 big brown bats eat enough cucumber beetles in one summer to prevent them from laying eggs that would produce 33 million crop-eating larvae the following year.
Since the beginning of the WNS outbreak in 2006, scientists estimate a million bats have been killed, which would have eaten nearly 700 tons of insects.
Another potential impact is the loss of tourist revenue from recreational spelunking. In May, in an effort to stop the spread of the WNS fungus, the U.S. Forest Service closed all caves on National Forest lands, including the Monongahela National Forest.
Researchers have learned that bats can spread the disease to each other, but are uncertain how the disease is spread from cave to cave. Some think it's possible that humans, as well as bats, can spread the fungus between hibernacula.
The number of cavers visiting Pocahontas County every year is unknown, but an annual caver convention in Randolph County drew more than 2,000 attendees last summer. The loss of spelunker tourist revenue comes at a time when the economy needs all the help it can get. County hotel/motel tax revenue is down almost 18 percent from last year.
The National Speleological Society, with more than 11,000 members, has cooperated with efforts to save the bats. The group launched a fund drive to help WNS researchers and provides instructions on its website how to decontaminate caving gear.
The potential economic impact is bad, but the greatest danger is to bats and the ecosystem. The disease affects six, non-migratory species of bats: the big brown; little brown; small-footed; northern long-eared; eastern pipstrel and the endangered Indiana bats.
Whatever is causing the disease, the end result is bat starvation.
Bats hibernate between September and April. During this period, when food is not available, their temperature, breathing rate and heart rate decrease dramatically to save energy. Bats affected by WNS become active during hibernation and leave their roosts to feed. Unable to find food, the bats die of starvation. Entrances to infected bat caves have been found littered with bat bodies.
Thanks to a gnarly appearance and a multitude of vampire movies, bats have become an object of fear. In fact, they are one of the most beneficial and fascinating species on Earth. Bats are the only mammals that have mastered natural, powered flight and have lived on the planet for an estimated 50 million years.
For more information on bats, see www.wvu.edu/~agexten/wildlife/bats.pdf on the world wide web. More information on white nose syndrome can be found online at http://www.caves.org/WNS/.