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Bat with white nose syndrome
This little brown bat with white nose syndrome was found near North Bend, Wash. (Credit: PAWS)

Researchers are dismayed by the first-ever case of the bat-killing disease known as white nose syndrome in Washington state, more than 1,000 miles west of where it’s been detected before.

The illness is linked to a fungus that’s primarily spread from bat to bat, but the fungus can also be transmitted via the shoes, clothes and gear of cave visitors.

Although it’s not harmful to humans, pets, livestock or most wildlife, the fungus is devastating for the bats. White nose syndrome has killed more than 6 million bats in North America since it was first documented nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

White nose syndrome was first detected in New York, and until now, it was thought to have spread only as far west as Nebraska.

“We are extremely concerned about the confirmation of WNS in Washington state, about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection of the fungus that causes the disease,” Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. “Bats are a crucial part of our ecology and provide essential pest control for our farmers, foresters and city residents, so it is important that we stay focused on stopping the spread of this fungus.”

The story of the syndrome’s spread to Western Washington began on March 11, when hikers found a sick bat near North Bend, about 30 miles east of Seattle. The little brown bat was taken to Progressive Animal Welfare Society for care but died two days later.

The bat showed signs of a skin infection that’s common in bats with white nose syndrome, so PAWS submitted the bat for testing to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center. Scientists analyzed fungal samples and tissue samples to confirm that the bat had white nose syndrome.

White nose syndrome gets its name from the fuzzy white fungal growth that can appear on the muzzles of infected bats. The fungus invades the skin of hibernating bats and damages tissues. The resulting physiological imbalance causes infected bats to wake up, fly off, deplete their winter reserves and die.

“The bat found near North Bend most likely had been roused from hibernation and was attempting to feed at a time of very low insect availability,” said Katie Haman, a veterinarian for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “At this point we don’t know where the infected bat may have spent the winter, but it seems likely that it was somewhere in the central Cascades.”

White nose syndrome map for bats
A map charts the spread of white nose syndrome. (Credit: Lindsey Heffernan / Pennsylvania Game Commission)

The Department of Fish and Wildlife will coordinate surveillance and response efforts, with assistance from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. The first step will be to conduct surveillance near where the bat was found to determine the extent of white nose syndrome in the area.

If you come across a dead bat, or notice bats exhibiting unusual behavior such as flying outside during the day or during freezing weather, report your observations online or call the department’s Wildlife Health Hotline at 800-606-8768. The department advises against handling dead or sick bats.

With the addition of Washington state, the disease has now been reported in 28 states and five Canadian provinces. In affected regions, cavers are often required to follow decontamination protocols, or stay out of some caves altogether. To learn more about white nose syndrome and get the details on decontamination, visit WhiteNoseSyndrome.org on the Web.

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