In 2006 millions of bats begin dying of a mysterious disease called white-nose syndrome. For years the disease was confined to the Northeastern United States, but now the deadly disease has spread to bats in the Northwest and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is racing to stop a white-nose outbreak in the bat population there.
White-nose syndrome is hitting west coast bats
In 2006, millions of bats began dying of a mysterious disease called white-nose syndrome.
For years the disease was confined to the northeastern United States, but now the deadly disease has spread to bats in the Northwest.
And the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is racing to stop a white-nose outbreak in the bat population there.
Our environmental reporting partner, Earthfx, has the story.
Ready for the sampling?
Wildlife veterinarian John Huckabee is on the lookout for symptoms of a deadly and contagious disease, a disease that kills bats by the millions.
There are a few deep-pigmented areas of scarring.
But overall, looks like he's in very good shape.
This silver-haired bat doesn't seem to be a carrier.
But a few months ago, a little brown bat arrived at his office outside Seattle.
I saw that one of the wings had a lot of contracture and some wounds, some lesions on the wing.
And it had an appearance like it may have a fungal infection.
The odd scarring was a possible sign of white-nose syndrome, one of the deadliest wildlife diseases in modern times.
First discovered in New York state in 2006, white-nose syndrome has killed more than 5 1/2 million bats and counting.
The disease, which is spread primarily from bat-to-bat contact, has wreaked havoc on the large colonies of the East Coast.
We have seen populations of bats in eastern colonies decline in some cases to 100%.
Until recently, it wasn't known how the disease killed its victims.
But new research suggests that bats with white-nose wake up more often during hibernation.
This causes them to burn through fat reserves that would usually sustain them through the winter.
Starvation and death soon follow.
In just a few short years, the epidemic raced across the country, spreading from the Northeast all the way to Nebraska and Oklahoma.
But then it hit an enormous natural barrier.
The Rocky Mountains kept the disease from reaching western bats, or so scientists thought until Huckabee's discovery.
Some speculate that an infected bat may have hitched a ride on a freight truck.
Others think hikers or cavers may have unwittingly carried the fungus on their clothes or equipment.
Since the first infected bat was found in the forest east of Seattle, the white-nose fungus has been found twice more in Washington state, both near the original site around North Bend.
We have bats in the net.
Fear of a white-nose outbreak has jump-started research, not just in Washington, but around the Northwest.
In Central Oregon, ecologist Tom Rodhouse and a team of researchers are collecting data on local bats.
Bats hang out in the dark.
They hang out in these big cliffs and crevices that we can't access.
So we've gone for decades without really understanding what's happening with bats.
Was it coming out?
They're trying to assess the health and population size of Oregon's 15 species of bats.
There's really no way for us to ascertain what's happening with our bat populations without this kind of a coordinated, large-scale survey effort.
I'll grab the detector.
Back in Washington, researchers such as Abby Tobin are trying to learn how bats spend their winters.
We're trying to figure out what type of habitats they're roosting in, if they're hibernating through the winter or if they are kind of active throughout, and also looking at those habitats they're using and whether the environment there is conducive for the fungus to thrive.
Why don't we kind of go down a little bit to be away from the trail?
It would be a little more stable.
Let's try down there.
She's setting up bat detectors, specialized microphones that can pick up bats' high-frequency calls.
Yeah, that's good.
Each bat has unique echolocation call, and so we're able to identify them based on that call from those acoustic detectors.
Now I got to turn the detector on.
From this I could tell this is a canyon bat.
And they have this typical kind of hockey-stick shape look to their call.
In the lab, Tobin looks for small signs the disease is taking hold in Washington.
There's a couple little, tiny little holes.
I am looking right now to see if there's any damage to the wing membranes, which would be a sign that it had white-nose syndrome.
It's important to detect white-nose syndrome early because it allows us to get a sense of where it is, so we might be able to do some sort of containment or treatment with the animals.
Despite white-nose's deadly effects on bats, it poses no known threat to people.
But many questions remain.
And it could be years before definitive answers emerge.
And that wraps it up for this time.
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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.
Thanks for watching.
Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.