Bat Fungus Threatens D.C. Creatures With Extinction (PHOTOS)

10/31/2011 03:54 pm ET | Updated Dec 31, 2011

WASHINGTON -- White-nose syndrome has been definitively linked to declining bat populations, including those in the nation's capital.

Scientists predict that the bat most affected by white-nose syndrome -- the little brown bat -- will be extinct in the northeastern United States within a decade. In the District of Columbia as well, little brown bats have been hardest hit by white-nose syndrome, which is caused by a fungus. D.C.'s big brown bats are also dying, as are several other species of less-common mouse-eared bats.

White-nose syndrome kills bats hibernating in caves; the fungus spreads when people track it from one cave to another. Migratory bats, which don't hibernate, aren't affected, said Don Wilson, curator emeritus for the Smithsonian's Division of Mammals, because "they tend not to use caves."

But Wilson added, "Interestingly enough, the migratory bats are being killed by these wind towers that are springing up all over. It's a bad time for bats."

Wilson noted that the number of bats dying from wind towers is very small compared with the number killed by the fungus. "But it's kind of ironic that if the fungus don't get you, the wind towers do," he said.

A recent study found that the decline in bat populations may cost farmers -- who rely on the mammals to eat insects -- more than $3.7 billion per year. The study found that bats' overall economic value to farmers may be as much as $53 billion per year.

There is some hope. White-nose syndrome is being studied "like mad," Wilson said. The genome has been sequenced, and scientists are trying to figure out exactly how the fungus is killing the bats. Wilson said that wind towers are also being studied to determine why they are so deadly to bats. Scientists know that the bats are killed gruesomely by barotrauma but don't know why bats fly close enough to the huge turbines to be killed by the sudden drop in air pressure.

For the average concerned person, Wilson said, "there's not much you can do, other than probably stay out of caves."

D.C. has 10 to 12 species of bats, including the long-eared myotis, the tiny eastern small-footed myotis, the northern long-eared myotis, the endangered Indiana bat, the silver-haired bat, the red bat and the solitary hoary bat.


Flickr photo by Josh Henderson, used under a Creative Commons license.

WATCH Thomas Kunz and his team at Boston University's bat lab discuss white-nose syndrome and the implications for the little brown bat population: