MOUNT VERNON — Millions of bats are dying in the northeastern United States and Canada from a disease known as White-nose Syndrome. The disease is named after a white fungus that appears around the nose and other parts of affected hibernating bats. The cause of WNS has been determined to be a newly-discovered fungus called Geomyces destructans. The dynamics and transmission of this fungal infection are being investigated with teams of scientists searching for a way to control it.
More than 5.5 million bats have died since WNS was first discovered in New York state in 2006. The breakout of dead bats has mostly occurred in the northeastern states, but recent cases have been reported as far west as Missouri and Oklahoma, pushing the number of states with cases of infected bats to 20. Of the 45 bat species living in the United States, 11 of them have contracted cases of WNS.
Very few cases of WNS have been discovered in Ohio. The only documented cases in the state have been at the Lawrenceville Mine in the Wayne National Forest and the Preble Mine in Preble County, according to Mary Knapp, field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Columbus.
Not all bats affected with WNS are going to show obvious fungal growth. Symptoms of infection can include the bats showing abnormal behavior. They may be flying outside during the day in temperatures at or below freezing.
In looking at the fungus that is causing deaths in the bats, Knapp’s theory is one of starvation. “I believe it causes them to wake up during hibernation. They are waking up prematurely and their fat stores are very low,” explained Knapp. “They will try to fly out of the mine or cave and look for insects because they’re really hungry. During the winter, there are no insects, so they start to starve.”
Another fear people have about bats is that they carry rabies, but Knapp said the rabies virus has nothing to do with WNS.
While there is no evidence that shows WNS can be contracted by humans or other animals, biologists are still being very cautious when approaching a bat for examination.