Citing a bat emergency, scientists seek US aid

Decomposing skulls and wing bones of bats that died from white-nose syndrome lie on the floor of a cave. Decomposing skulls and wing bones of bats that died from white-nose syndrome lie on the floor of a cave. (Ryan Smith for The Boston Globe/ File)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / December 27, 2010

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Excerpts from the Globe’s environmental blog.

Scientists and conservation groups are asking the US Fish and Wildlife Service to immediately protect what was the most common bat species in the Northeast just five years ago.

The brown bat is being ravaged by white nose syndrome, a fast-moving and deadly illness named for a powdery white fungus that appear on bats’ noses, faces, and wings. The disease has killed more than a million bats in the United States, and scientists say it could wipe out brown bats in the Northeast within 20 years.

“The little brown bat is in imminent danger of extinction in its Northeastern core range due to white-nose syndrome, and the species is likely in danger of extinction throughout North America,’’ said Thomas H. Kunz of Boston University, a leading authority on bats.

Kunz and other researchers are asking the federal agency to place the animal on the endangered species list as an emergency measure and then assess its population.

Kunz and others conducted their own study earlier this year and determined there is a 99 percent chance the brown bat will not sustain a regional population for more than 16 years unless death rates slow.

A Fish and Wildlife official said emergency listings do occur, but not often.

“Given the urgency of white-nose syndrome . . . the Service is committed to quickly reviewing scientific information, both published and provided by organizations such as these, in assessing the status of little brown bats and other bat species affected by WNS,’’ the agency’s Ann Froschauer wrote in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Geological Survey in Wisconsin have found that white nose damage to bat wings may represent a new way fungi can harm mammals. Other skin infections in mammals from fungi, such as ringworm or athlete’s foot, remain superficial and do not invade living tissue. Yet white nose syndrome does.

“This fungus is amazingly destructive — it digests, erodes, and invades the skin, particularly the wings, of hibernating bats,’’ said Carol Meteyer, a pathologist with the National Wildlife Health Center.

The illness was identified in 2006 in New York and has spread from New Hampshire to Tennessee as well as north into Quebec and Ontario.

Affected bats act erratically, flying around in broad daylight in winter — a time they are normally deep in hibernation in ice-encrusted caves and abandoned mines.

In some bat colonies in the Northeast, mortality rates have been nearly 100 percent.

The petition was filed along with the Center for Biological Diversity, a national advocacy group; Friends of Blackwater Canyon in West Virginia; and the Washington-based Wildlife Advocacy Project and Bat Conservation International.