White-Nose Syndrome has been a common topic of interest in the conservation scene in New England since 2012. It is a disease of bats caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. I can remember when word of it first made it to my ears in Maine. I had always seen bats around my family’s house in Central Maine, and I did not really notice a decline in my small area of bat exposure. The Little Brown Bats (Myotis lucifugus) would appear every summer, fluttering about my backyard, catching mosquitoes and bugs as they flew over the irrigation ditch that belonged to a farm up the road from my house. I guess I was naïve about the large-scale nature of the disease.
First, what the heck is White-Nose Syndrome? So what if the bats have some fungus on them? I like to keep things as simple as possible, so here we go. The problem is that North American bats are supposed to hibernate all winter (just like a lot of other wild mammals). They build up fat stores and then sleep the winter away peacefully with their metabolisms running very slowly and their immune systems basically shut down. However, P destructans, the fungus, gets on them, makes them itchy, wakes them up, activates their immune systems, and causes them to use energy during the winter while they should be sleeping. The fungus is psychrophilic, meaning that it loves to live in cold temperatures, making winter it’s prime time to grow. A common observation of bat colonies affected by the fungus is seeing bats flying around and being active on cold days – days they would normally be hibernating.
The fungus that causes the disease is suspected to have arrived in the US in 2012 at Howe Caverns in upstate New York. The caverns have thousands of visitors each year, and it is though that the fungus hitched a ride on a tourist. It is native to Europe, where bats like the Greater mouse-eared Bat (Myotis myotis) come into contact with it and get along with their lives just fine. This suggests that they co-evolved with the fungus, unlike North American bats that were never exposed to it until recently.
What can we do about this? At the moment, there is not much we can do. Recently, the disease has been documented in bats all the way in Washington state on the West coast. It has spread fast. Grants are available for people to research the disease, and they are available to almost any student or professional with a decent idea about how to combat the disease. This is a constant reminder to me that when traveling, we need to be cautious of any “biological hitchhikers” that may be along for the ride. Even though the continents are separated, global travel has made it so that nothing is really separate anymore. We are all connected as a global community, requiring us to have a sense of global ethics when it comes to biosecurity and conservation.