White-nose syndrome (WNS) is continuing to spread across bat populations in the Northeastern United States. First documented in eastern New York in 2006, an estimated 500,000 bats of more than six different species (including the endangered Indiana bat) have died from the disease. WNS has been found in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service expects this list of states to increase over time.

Researchers have no idea what caused the disease, but they suspect it is spread by bat to bat contact, with a possibility of person to bat contamination. Bats afflicted by WNS lose a substantial amount of their body fat and die of starvation or freeze to death, but no one has been able to determine why this happens. The Nature Conservancy reports:

About 25 laboratories and government agencies are in on the research. Several are investigating infectious agents such as fungus, bacteria and viruses. Others are examining the bats’ food supply, weight and fat composition. Some labs are studying environmental contaminants like mercury and pesticides. Still others are looking into whether the bats are rousing too often during hibernation.

More recently, members of Congress from the affected states have submitted a letter requesting financial assistance for the research to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The Fish & Wildlife Service is taking precautions and requesting that recreational cavers steer clear of caves in affected areas, and wear only new, uncontaminated clothing when caving in other parts of the country to avoid a potential spread of the disease. Cavers everywhere are being asked to avoid caves and mines where bats hibernate during the winter to minimize any disturbances to bat populations.

There are over 1,000 different species of bats worldwide, making up one-quarter of all mammal species. Bats pollinate flowers, fertilize plants, and provide a key role in keeping harmful insect populations under control. A single little brown bat can eat up to 1,200 insects an hour. The Nature Conservancy article cites a study that showed that “150 big brown bats eat enough adult cucumber beetles in one summer to prevent them from laying the eggs that would produce 33 million crop-damaging larvae the following year.” Clearly, the decline of bat populations could have a wide-reaching effect on the spread of diseases, our food supply, and the biological diversity of many other plant and animal species. Let’s hope these researchers get the money they need to fix this problem, fast.

US Fish & Wildlife Service White-nose Syndrome in Bats FAQ [PDF]

Nature Conservancy Magazine: In the Dark.

Lawmakers Seek Funds To Probe Bat Deaths : NPR.

Cave Activity Discouraged To Help Protect Bats From Deadly White-nose Syndrome.

Are cavers spreading lethal bat disease? – New Scientist.