A veterinarian at the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Lynnwood discovered the first case of white-nose syndrome in bats in the western United States.
White-nose syndrome is a fungus that grows on bats typically in winter months while bats hibernate. It was discovered about a decade ago. Since then, it has devastated bat populations in the eastern United States, never farther west than parts of eastern Nebraska and Oklahoma, about 1,300 miles away.
In mid-March, hikers found a sick bat that was unable to fly in the area of North Bend, Wash., and brought it to PAWS in Lynnwood for help. The bat died two days later, and PAWS veterinarian John Huckabee noticed odd skin lesions on the bat that concerned him.
Huckabee sent the bat off for testing. One week ago, it was confirmed that the bat had white-nose syndrome.
“It was so unexpected,” Huckabee said. “We are certainly concerned due to the significant health implications for bat populations.”
So far, white-nose syndrome is known to have killed 5.7 million bats in North America, according to whitenosesyndrome.org. It has been found in 28 states and five Canadian provinces. Some bat populations have been mostly or entirely wiped out by the condition.
Huckabee said damaging the bat population in Washington could have significant ecological and agricultural implications because of their diet of insects, including mosquitoes and crop pests.
“Bats can consume half their body weight in insects on a nightly basis,” he said. “That’s a large number of insects. I can only imagine what insect populations would be (without bats).”
Bats also play a role in dispersing seeds and pollinating fruit-bearing plants.
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome grows in cold temperatures, which is why it tends to affect bats during hibernation. It is not known to affect any other animal or humans.
As for how the fungus is affecting bat populations in Washington, there are still more questions than answers. Since only one bat has been found, it is too early to say how many bats may be affected, or how widespread the fungus is geographically.
Now, researchers are testing the bat’s genetics to determine if it is a native bat to the western United States, or if it somehow got here from another area. They are also testing the fungus to determine if it is the same strain of white-nose syndrome found on the east coast. That process could take weeks or months.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is leading the state’s response to white-nose syndrome and is working to determine if and where other bats may be affected.
WDFW asks anyone who notices dead bats or bats acting strangely to report their observations online or call the Wildlife Health Hotline at 800-606-8768. A common odd behavior associated with white nose is flying outside during the day or freezing weather.
Animal experts do not recommend handling any bats that appear sick or dead, as they may carry other diseases that do affect humans and other animals, such as rabies.
“It’s important nobody actually touch a bat,” Huckabee said. “Don’t be afraid of them, but be respectful and understanding. It’s important no direct contact be made with them.”
–By Natalie Covate