Washington (AP) – A mysterious fungus attacking bats in the U.S.
could spread nationwide within years and represents the most
serious threat to wildlife in a century, experts warned Congress
Displaying pictures of bats speckled with the white fungus that
gave the disease its name – white-nose syndrome – experts described
to two House subcommittees Thursday the horror of discovering caves
where bats had been decimated by the disease.
As a state wildlife biologist from Vermont put it, one cave
there was turned into a morgue, with bats freezing to death outside
and so many carcasses littering the cave’s floor the stench was too
strong for researchers to enter.
They also warned that if nothing more is done to stop its
spread, the fungus could strike caves and mines with some of the
largest and most endangered populations of hibernating bats in the
At stake is the loss of an insect-eating machine. The six
species of bats that have so far been stricken by the fungus can
eat up to their body weight in insects a night, reducing insects
that destroy crops, forests and carry disease such as West Nile
“We are witnessing one of the most precipitous declines of
wildlife in North America,” said Thomas Kunz, director of the
Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University,
who said that between $10 million and $17 million is needed to
launch a national research program into the fungus.
Merlin Tuttle, a world-renowned bat expert and president of Bat
Conservation International in Austin, Texas, said that white-nose
syndrome was probably the most serious threat to wildlife in the
past century. He also called for more research to determine its
cause and how it was being spread.
“Never in my wildest imagination had I dreamed of anything that
could pose this serious a threat to America’s bats,” Tuttle told
the panel. “This is the most alarming event in the lifetime of a
person who has devoted his life to recovering these
Since it was first discovered in a cave west of upstate New York
in March 2007, white-nose syndrome has spread to 65 caves in nine
states, turning up last winter in West Virginia and Virginia,
federal wildlife officials said. There are also several caves
suspected of harboring the fungus in Canada.
To date it has killed between 500,000 to 1 million bats, mostly
common species. But what has wildlife officials concerned is the
fungus looks to be on the verge of entering the Southeast and
Midwest, where some of the most endangered and largest populations
of bats live. The fungus is known to occur in caves used by the
Virginia big-eared bat, which has a population of only 20,000.
“If it goes farther, we are going to see some serious bat
issues,” said Marvin Moriarty, acting deputy director of the Fish
and Wildlife Service. “If it makes that jump, we have a real
The Interior Department and Forest Service have so far spent $5
million researching the problem, closed caves to people on forest
lands in 33 states and urged the public not to enter caves or
abandoned mines in states with white-nose syndrome. While there is
no evidence the people can be harmed by the fungus, they may be
contributing to its spread.
There is also a plan in place to start raising the Virginia
big-eared bat in captivity to prevent its extinction if and when
the fungus strikes that species.
But some lawmakers Thursday wondered if that was enough.
“The severe mortality and sudden spread of white-nose syndrome
demonstrates the need for a rapid response beyond closing caves
where bats live,” said Del. Madeleine Z. Bordallo, a Democrat, who
said the syndrome “could be an ecological and economic disaster if
it remains unchecked.”
One possible consequence of the syndrome’s toll on bats is
increased used of pesticides to control inspect populations,
The fungus attacks bats during winter hibernation, when they are
most vulnerable and their temperature is lowered so they can last
through the winter on the fat they have put on by feasting on
insects. Research has shown that the fungus thrives in cold
temperatures and the densities of bats huddled on the ceilings and
walls of cave likely help it to spread.
How exactly the fungus kills bats is poorly understood, but once
the fungus attaches it invades tissues. The bat then fidgets,
burning up its excess energy. Most simply starve and die, others
leave the cave prematurely to look for nonexistent food in the
winter and perish.
If it goes further, we are going to see some serious bat
“I went into a cave last spring and most damn near cried,”
Moriarty said in an interview after the House panel.
There were supposed to be 3,000 bats in the cave, the Greeley
mine in Vermont. Moriarty and his colleagues could only find
“And I don’t think a single bat was going to make it out of the
cave,” he said.