Another Alien Invader

Little brown bat with white nose syndrome (photo by USFW via Wikimedia Commons)
Little brown bat with white nose syndrome (photo by USFW via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s news that surprised me about white nose syndrome, the disease that’s wiping out bat populations in eastern North America.

White nose syndrome (WNS) is caused by a cold-loving fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, that thrives in temperatures 40-200 C (390– 680 F), which happens to be the winter temperature in caves where bats hibernate.

The fungus attaches to the bat’s exposed skin — nose, wings, ears — where it looks like white powder.  It doesn’t kill bats directly. Instead it eats away at their skin, causing irritation, dehydration, and higher metabolism that burns up their fat stores.(*)  The bats rouse themselves and fly around on mid-winter days looking for food.  There aren’t any flying insects to eat so they starve and die. Millions of them.

Since white nose syndrome first appeared nine years ago near Albany, NY the toll has been devastating.  The fungus has spread rapidly from state to state and into Canada, ultimately reducing some bat populations by 95%.  It was confirmed in western Pennsylvania in the winter of 2010-2011 and this year in Oklahoma.  There’s a real possibility that the little brown bat will go extinct in the next 15 years.

Bat researchers are now in a race against time to stop the fungus.  Meanwhile they found out where it came from: Europe.

How did it get here?

In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Elizabeth Kolbert describes its probable path as told by NY DEC’s Al Hicks.  The first record — in 2006 — was photographed in “a cave connected to Howes Cave, a popular tourist destination which offers, among other attractions, flashlight tours and underground boat trips.  “It’s kind of interesting that the first record we have of this is photographs from a commercial cave in New York that gets about two hundred thousand visits a year,” Hicks told me.”

And so it’s likely that someone with spores on their clothing or gear got on a plane in Europe and visited a cave near Albany.

It’s amazingly easy to introduce an alien invader.


(photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. I highly recommend The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert.  It’s a great book, full of detective stories like this one.

(*) Click here for an article that answers the question: How Does White Nose Syndrome Kill Bats? Thanks to Deb Grove for the link.

4 thoughts on “Another Alien Invader

  1. We live in the Albany area and currently have bats hibernating in our attic. I did some research on the syndrome to educate myself since I knew very little about it. It is devastating disease. Thanks for sharing.

  2. As I learned from a program shown on PBS, the disease was introduced by a tourist (as Kate mentioned), who had visited a location in Germany not long before. Apparently, the bats in Europe are largely immune to the disease, which leads me to wonder if we’ll have to import the European strain of Little Browns in the near future. Very sad situation and I’m sure the tourist who inadvertently brought the spores with him must feel horrible, if he or she is aware. -C.

  3. Thanks for spreading the word on this Kate. For the most part, I’m still seeing bats flying in the same areas I always have. They’re very important to the ecosystem, aside from their inherent right to survive.

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