Animals

Deadly Bat Disease Reaches US West Coast

A little brown bat outside Seattle tests positive for the white nose syndrome fungus.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on March 31 that a bat found in Washington state had tested positive for the deadly disease white nose syndrome (WNS), marking the first time the condition had been seen in western North America.

The animal, a little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) found by hikers about 30 miles from Seattle, was reported to have had visible symptoms of the disease (a fuzzy white fungus). Detailed analyses later confirmed it was WNS. The bat died two days after being found.

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WNS has killed an estimated 6 million bats in North America, since it was first discovered in 2006 in eastern New York. Since then, it has spread to 28 US states and to five provinces in Canada, according to the FWS.

"We are extremely concerned about the confirmation of WNS in Washington state, about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection of the fungus that causes the disease," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in a statement.

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WNS is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which infects bats while they hibernate, harming their nose, ears, and wings. It robs them of energy they need to survive, as their fat reserves are prematurely drained. It can lay waste to entire colonies of bats.

"This finding in a far-western location is unfortunately indicative of the challenges we face with the unpredictability of WNS," said Suzette Kimball, director of the U.S. Geological Survey. "This underscores the critical importance of our work to develop tools for early detection and rapid response to potentially devastating wildlife diseases."

Did you know April 17 is bat appreciation day? And why not? These flying mammals, though they look a bit scary to some people, are actually most welcome critters, for all of the good they do. Bats are terrific pollinators and seed-dispersers of hundreds of plant species, and they eat tons of insects -- enough to match their own body weight on a good night of foraging. So on this day, appreciate them we will! Let's have a look at some more of these winged wonders.

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Most bats spend their days sleeping, in preparation for their nocturnal foraging. Their slumber may look upside-down to us, but to them it's totally the way you're supposed to do it.

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Bats love, love, love insects, but they'll also eat fruits, flower nectar, vertebrates, and -- yes, indeed -- blood.

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This female dwarf epauletted fruit bat is in a family way, at the moment. Pregnant bats usually carry just one child at a time. Once born, the moms will nurse the newbies until they're almost fully grown, as the little ones' wings need to be fully developed before they can hunt for food on their own.

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Bat colonies roost together, and can do so in unspeakably large numbers -- in the millions, in some cases and caves.

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And when they take wing at dusk, they do that together too, in huge swarms.

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There are more than 1,200 species of bat, the vast percentage of them insectivores.

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Bats have generally small teeth that will vary by species, but they're plenty well suited to tearing into bugs, fruit, or even skin if the bat is among the small group of species that dines on vertebrates such as frogs or birds.

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Bats' wings are a lot thinner than those of birds, which helps them move fast, with incredible precision. Of course their thinness makes them fragile and susceptible to tearing. But if the tears aren't too large, they heal quickly.

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Sadly, bats today are experiencing a health emergency that first came to light in 2006. In large numbers, they're being decimated by a condition called white-nose syndrome, a fungus that grows on the muzzles, ears, and wings and is fatal nearly 100 percent of the time. This northern long-eared bat in Illinois is affected by white-nose syndrome. While there has been some

encouraging research

into treatments, there is as yet no cure for the disease. Here's hoping one arrives soon, because we need bats!

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