A brief history and description of White Nose Syndrome
In January 2007, Al Hicks of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation discovered an unusual fungus growing on bats hibernating in four caves near Albany, New York. It quickly became apparent that the fungus was associated with very high mortality—probably higher than 90%—in all of the affected caves. Al dubbed the infliction White Nose Syndrome (WNS) because the most obvious symptom was the white fungus growing on the furless areas of the face. We have since learned that the white nose is not a universal symptom, and in some individuals the fungus grows on wing and tail membranes as well as under the skin. Other individuals show no external signs of the fungus at all. Further, other symptoms have since emerged that may be more universal indicators than the fungus—it appears that affected individuals are extremely underweight, and many are exhibiting unusual behaviors such as flying around outside of the cave during the day (I’ll discuss the symptoms and the research being done on the causes more in future entries).
It is unknown exactly how many bats died during 2007, but estimates of about 10,000 individuals seem reasonable. Unfortunately, in January 2008 we realized the problem had become much worse when it was discovered that WNS had spread to several more caves in New York. State agencies in the region set about the task of surveying most of the known bat hibernacula in the region. As I’m writing this, bats with visible white fungus have been discovered in about 16 caves (this number is growing) in New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts. It has been estimated from censuses done in previous years that as many as 500,000 bats may hibernate in the affected caves, although surveys are not being conducted this year so it is unknown what proportion of these individuals are affected. The fear is that the very high mortality seen in 2007 will continue in 2008 and many hundreds of thousands of bats may die.