Bat-killing white-nose syndrome found in Alabama cave

A colony of southeastern bats, or Myotis austroriparius. As of 2017, the species joins eight other hibernating bat species in North America that are afflicted with the deadly bat fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome.(Credit: Pete Pattavina, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.)

Inexorable spread of deadly disease continues

Staff Report

The deadly fungal white-nose syndrome has been detected in a new species of bat in the southeastern U.S. for the first time.

Following winter surveys, the bat-killing disease was found in the southeastern Myotis. To date, nice species of hibernating bats have been identified as susceptible to the disease.

The diseased bat was found in Shelby County, Alabama, at Lake Purdy Corkscrew Cave, owned by the Birmingham Water Works and managed by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to cave acquisition, conservation and management. WNS in the southeastern bat was confirmed in the laboratory by the U.S. Geological Survey.

A fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd, causes WNS, which affects many, but not all bat species that come into contact with it. Of those affected, bat populations have declined by more than 90 percent.

“We are disappointed to find white-nose syndrome in another species, but hopeful that the southeastern bat may fare better than many of its more northern cousins based on how long it took to be diagnosed with the disease,” said Jeremy Coleman, national WNS coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This discovery, along with the continued spread of Pd this year, reinforces the need for our continued vigilance in the face of white-nose syndrome.”

First detected in New York in 2007, WNS is now in 31 states and five Canadian provinces.

Other species confirmed with WNS include little brown, northern long-eared, Indiana, Eastern small-footed, gray, tricolored, big brown and Yuma myotis. All the affected species eat insects and hibernate during the winter. The northern long-eared bat was designated as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2015 primarily due to the threat of WNS.

Bats are an important part of our nation’s ecosystems, and provide significant pest control services to American farmers. Insectivorous bats likely save the United States agricultural industry at least $3 billion each year, or approximately $74 per acre for the average farmer. Alabama is home to 15 species of bats, including northern long-eared bats and federally endangered gray and Indiana bats.

Each winter the Alabama Bat Working Group (ABWG) surveys areas to inventory bat populations, discover important bat hibernation areas and document the advance of WNS. This year biologists from the ABWG surveyed 50 sites in 14 counties and found that numbers of tricolored bats and endangered Indiana bats had substantially declined.

Nick Sharp, a member of the ABWG and nongame biologist with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, says the decline of tricolored bats has experts concerned. “Tricolored bats were once common in Alabama, but now seem to be disappearing due to WNS. We are troubled by the potential loss of the important ecosystem function this species provides in Alabama,” he said.

“Ongoing surveillance for the P. destructans fungus and white-nose syndrome provides critical information to resource managers about the occurrence of this disease in North American bats,” said David Blehert, a scientist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. “This information is essential to inform future response efforts.”

WNS was first documented in Alabama in 2012 in Jackson County, and since has been confirmed in bats in Jackson, Lawrence, Limestone, Marshall, Morgan and, now, Shelby counties. In addition to finding the diseased southeastern bat this season, the ABWG swabbed more than 100 bats statewide, adding Blount, Bibb and Madison to the list of counties where WNS fungus has been documented. Calhoun, Colbert and Lauderdale tested Pd-positive in previous years.

For additional information on WNS, please visit www.whitenosesyndrome.org.

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