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White Nose Syndrome Continues To Ravage Bats In Ohio And Elsewhere

Ryan Von Linden
New York Department of Environmental Conservation
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A little brown bat afflicted with White Nose Syndrome

Across the Midwest and eastern U.S., an estimated 6 million bats have died from a devastating scourge that first appeared nine years ago. And while there’s been a recent glimmer of hope in treating bats with White Nose Syndrome, researchers say it’s going to be hard to recover from the damage done to these flying mammals.

White Nose Syndrome is a fungal disease that was first reported in a New York cave in 2006. It appears as a whitish fuzz that covers the bat’s face, wings, and body. It disrupts the bat’s hibernation cycle as it winters in caves, essentially causing it to burn up its energy reserves and starve to death before springtime.  

Jennifer Norris, the state bat biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, says White Nose Syndrome first appeared in Ohio in 2011.  

“To date, we’ve confirmed it in 19 counties, and pre-White Nose to post-White Nose, we’ve seen about an 85 percent decline in our bat populations,” Norris says.  “And because the declines are so significant, we’ll likely never have the bat populations...that we once did, even five years ago.”

Norris says people can carry the fungal spores on their clothes and bring them from one cave to another, spreading the disease.  So Ohio’s strategy to control the spread of the fungus has been to limit human contact with the spores.  The state recently restricted access to hiking trails, mines, and caves across Ohio. This includes areas of Wayne National Forest in the South and Summit Metro Parks in the Northeast.

A sign closing off a cave in Liberty Ledges park site outside Twinsburg, Ohio to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome.
Credit Brian Bull / WCPN
A sign closing off a cave in Liberty Ledges park site outside Twinsburg, Ohio to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome.

Norris says it’s too soon to fully assess the ecological and economic impact of losing bats, but cites a study in 2011 published in the journal Science.  It says bats save farmers up to $22 billion a year in non-toxic pest control nationally, and roughly $2 billion in Ohio alone.  Norris says that’s because the flying mammals are voracious bug-eaters.  

“One bat can eat its body’s weight in bugs in one night, and that’s the equivalent of about 50 large pizzas for an average sized human,” Norris says.  Fewer bats means more pests.

Scientists across the country are studying White Nose Syndrome with one recent finding showing some hope.  Chris Cornelison, a researcher at Georgia State University, has been experimenting with a common, soil-dwelling bacteria: Rhodococcus rhodochrous, which can delay ripening in fruits and vegetables.  

“I thought if it can prevent mold from growing on a banana, then potentially it could prevent mold from growing on a bat,” says Cornelison.

Last month, 150 bats were successfully treated with the bacteria and released in Missouri.  Researchers hope to implement this with more bats soon in affected areas, once long-term studies are done with the released bats.  

Among those holding out hope is Marlo Perdicas, a wildlife biologist with Summit Metro Parks. She figures at least 90 percent of the bats in Liberty Ledges’ caves near Twinsburg have died since White Nose Syndrome was discovered there in 2012.  

Marlo Perdicas, a wildlife biologist with Summit MetroParks, outside a cave area near the Liberty Ledges park site outside Twinsburg, Ohio.
Credit Brian Bull / WCPN
Marlo Perdicas, a wildlife biologist with Summit MetroParks, outside a cave area near the Liberty Ledges park site outside Twinsburg, Ohio.

“I do really like that this bacteria is already found commonly in soils around the United States, I like that it’s natural,” she says. “I’m very hopeful that it will be the cure that we all hope to find.  There’s a lot of research to be done to see if this is the answer.  But I hope that it works.”

In the meantime, researchers say people can help by avoiding caves where bats may be hibernating, and to respect all cave and mine closures. The Ohio Division of Wildlife is asking Ohioans to report any bats spotted with white fuzzy growth on their bodies or flying during cold temperatures.  And if bats are found in human structures and pose no threat, to let them stay, at least during the fall and winter months.