The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A disease more lethal than covid-19 has nearly wiped out northern long-eared bats

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says white-nose syndrome has driven 97 to 100 percent population decline

A northern long-eared bat at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 2017. (Tony Dejak/AP)
4 min

Fifteen years after its was first discovered in a New York cave, white-nose syndrome has decimated the nation’s population of northern long-eared bats, reducing their numbers to almost nothing.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to reclassify the mammals from threatened to endangered after a review found that “white-nose syndrome is expected to affect 100 percent” of the animals by 2025. “White-nose syndrome has caused estimated declines of 97 to 100 percent of affected … populations,” the review said.

Endangered species are animals on the path to extinction, while threatened species are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, the service said. Species on the endangered list are afforded a suite of federal protections that threatened animals do not get.

White-nose syndrome, a fungus known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has been compared to HIV/AIDS for the way it burns through the skin and membrane of numerous bat species and kicks their immune systems into a frenzy, so much so that it attacks both healthy and unhealthy cells. The disease attacks bats as they hibernate in mines and caves. Thousands of the animals have been found dead or convulsing where they slept.

“White-nose syndrome is devastating northern long-eared bats at unprecedented rates, as indicated by this science-based finding,” Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Charlie Wooley said in a statement. “The Service is deeply committed to continuing our vital research with partners on reducing the impacts of white-nose syndrome, while working with diverse stakeholders to conserve the northern long-eared bat and reduce impacts to landowners.”

Fish and Wildlife said it is leading a white-nose syndrome national response team of 150 nongovernmental organizations, tribes, states, federal agencies and other institutions to fight the problem. “Together we are conducting critical white-nose syndrome research and developing management strategies to minimize impacts of the disease and recover affected bat populations,” the statement said. “To date, this effort has yielded scientific advancements that include identification of critical information about WNS and its impacts on North American bat species.”

But the Service has been working on solutions for a decade-and-a-half with limited success. In 2018, scientist made a promising discovery, a way to possibly kill it with ultraviolet light. White-nose syndrome has a glaring weakness to ultraviolet light, the research theorized.

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It evolved in the dark millions of years ago with bats in Eurasia, which, unlike bats in the United States, appear to be unaffected by the disease. After the fungus made its way across the Atlantic Ocean, possibly on the clothing or shoe of a cave explorer, North American bats appeared to have no natural defense. White-nose syndrome has infected more than half of the 47 bat species in the United States.

“Its ability to repair damage caused by UV light … seems to be entirely lacking in this fungus,” Daniel Lindner, a research plant pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service, said at the time of the discovery. “I’d go as far as to say it’s a vampire fungus. It doesn’t go up in a puff of smoke, [but] it’s gone down an evolutionary path so far that it’s really a creature of the dark.”

Fish and Wildlife officials would not estimate the number of northern long-eared bats in the United States, but the state of New York projected that it has about half a million.

In 2012, before the Fish and Wildlife Service stopped projecting the number of bats of all species killed by white-nose syndrome, the agency estimated that the disease has left about 6.7 million dead. Since that time, it has spread from the South and the Mid-Atlantic region to Nebraska and the Pacific Northwest.

The agency will hold a virtual public informational meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Central time on April 7 to address the impact of the proposed reclassification.

Northern long-eared bats are found in 37 states, including Maryland, Virginia and the District. Every Canadian province has them. Like other bats, it flies at night to feed mostly on moths, flies, leafhoppers, beetles and other insects known to devastate crops. Bats are also pollinators.

“Bats are critical to healthy, functioning ecosystems and contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination,” the service said.

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