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White-Nose Syndrome Threatens North American Bat Populations
White-Nose Syndrome Threatens North American Bat Populations
White-Nose Syndrome Threatens North American Bat Populations

Published on: 07/10/2024

Description

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see?  Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.


I spent the long Fourth of July weekend camping next to Paulina Creek in central Oregon, where the temperature reached the high-90s but I stayed cool surfing the creek’s natural rock slides and admiring the high desert.

It wasn’t the creek or the desert that proved to be the focal point of this trip, though: it was the bat I found on Saturday afternoon gripping a root in the middle of a high-traffic trail that led to a waterfall.

At first I thought it was dead, its furry back mottled as though a boot had pinned it to the ground. “That’s a shame,” I whispered, squinting at the tiny creature I’d first mistaken for dried feces before continuing toward the waterfall.

After swimming at the falls, I was still thinking about the little bat as I hiked back up the trail. It would be respectful to remove its body from the path to prevent other hikers from trampling on it, I thought, and I grabbed two sticks to unglue its body from the path and throw it into the trees nearby. 

But when I reached the bat the second time, I noticed twitching in its chest, a rapid inhale-exhale indicating signs of life. This was a surprise – what was this famously nocturnal animal doing on a dusty trail in broad daylight? 

Eruption

Central Oregon was sculpted by volcanoes (and I promise this relates to bats). 

The eruption of the Newberry Volcano about 1,300 years ago created vast, moon-like lava fields where trees still don’t grow, where the rocks burn in the summer heat and only the hardiest plants and animals dare to live. Two lakes that are fed by hot springs and snowmelt fill the volcano’s caldera, and beneath all of this are miles of lava tubes, some big enough to walk through. Even when the air aboveground reaches triple-digits, the caves average just 42 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The caves are also home to bats, and they’re the first place I learned about white-nose syndrome, a cold-loving fungus that grows in caves and infects hibernating bats. Since 2006, white-nose syndrome has spread from the northeastern United States into 28 states and five Canadian provinces, including Washington state, Oregon’s northern neighbor. 

The disease has killed more than six million bats in less than a decade, and it’s considered one of the current greatest threats to North American bat populations, along with climate change, habitat loss, declining food sources, and collisions with wind turbines.

The northern long-eared bat’s population has been decimated by the fungus, and in November of 2022 was listed as endangered by the Biden administration. The tricolored bat was proposed for endangered species listing in 2022 and the little brown bat is currently being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for listing, all because of white-nose syndrome. 

I have no idea what kind of bat I saw on the trail in central Oregon, but it certainly was little and brown, like the little brown bat’s name indicates. 

It also seemed sickly, creeping across the trail at a snail’s pace when I nudged it with a stick to move it out of the way of hikers and dogs tromping down the path.

Every cave I’ve visited in the past several years (and as a cave-aficionado I have visited many) has included signage warning visitors of white-nose syndrome. The fungus can cling to people’s clothes and shoes and survives even when those clothes are washed, so the best practice is to not wear anything that’s been in any other cave. 

This, of course, is a challenge in and of itself – who can remember what they were wearing on a particular day one month or one year ago? The fungus can live on surfaces for years, so indeed visitors must remember what they wore into any cave over the past decade or so. This seems a hard task, to say the least. 

But scientists say that it’s likely the disease is spreading primarily from bat to bat. There hasn’t yet been a documented case of white-nose syndrome in Oregon, but with the fungus’ presence in Washington, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it eventually moves across state lines. 

Speaking anecdotally, it seems like documenting the disease is its own struggle for wildlife officials. I saw strange behavior in a bat when I was outside of cell service, near the end of the day on a Saturday when no rangers were around. I didn’t have my phone to take a picture of the bat, nor did I think to. 

Only now, writing this newsletter, have I realized that reporting the bat sighting to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife would have been helpful. 

And that’s what feels so daunting about this disease: as much as we’d like to think we can track it, mitigate it, there are just too many factors we can’t control, like errant hikers like myself not even thinking about the significance of what they might have seen, until it’s too late. 

Living through the many iterations of the coronavirus showed me the unpredictable nature of invisible infectious disease. 

Human and wildlife diseases like Covid-19, the avian flu, chronic wasting disease, and white-nose syndrome are very different from each other, but what they share is something that I think scares humans more than anything else on this planet: their penchant for change, largely unrestricted and outside of our control. 

The post White-Nose Syndrome Threatens North American Bat Populations appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

News Source : https://dailyyonder.com/white-nose-syndrome-threatens-north-american-bat-populations/2024/07/10/

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