Disease that has decimated bats found in Washington for first time

The damaged wing of a little brown bat sickened by a fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than six million bats in North America. This bat was found weakened on a trail March 11, 2016, near North Bend and died later.
The damaged wing of a little brown bat sickened by a fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than six million bats in North America. This bat was found weakened on a trail March 11, 2016, near North Bend and died later. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed more than six million bats in North America, has been found in Washington state — the first time it has jumped to the western half of the U.S.

“This is somewhat of a game changer,” said Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator, on Thursday, March 31. “It was found with kind of an advanced stage of the disease. That does suggest that the fungus has probably been present” for a year or more.

Coleman, with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, was among the state and federal officials who announced that the disease had been found in a little brown bat earlier in March in Washington state. They said the case, with the syndrome’s presence so far confirmed in just one bat, raised many questions for which researchers are trying to find answers.

The disease is caused by a fungus found on the muzzles, ears and wings of infected bats, which are social creatures. It spreads rapidly, primarily from bat to bat. But people can carry fungal spores on their clothing, shoes or caving gear, officials said.

White-nose syndrome doesn’t seem to pose a threat to people, pets, livestock or other wildlife.

Little brown bats are among the species in Whatcom County and Washington state. Another dozen species could be at risk in this state, wildlife officials said.

Bats serve an important role in the environment and as pest control.

“Bats are important to us. They eat a lot of insect pests that harm us directly, our forests and our crops,” said Catherine Hibbard, who also is with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the agency that oversees the national response to white-nose syndrome.

To lovers of wildlife and especially bats, today’s news is very disappointing.

Catherine Hibbard, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Pseudogymnoascus destructans is the name of the fungus that causes the disease that was first found in 2006 and 2007 in Schoharie County, N.Y. It can kill up to 100 percent of all bats in a hibernating colony. Little brown bats, which had been among the most common bats in North America, have been hit hard by white-nose syndrome elsewhere.

With Washington included, the disease has spread to 28 states and five Canadian provinces.

Its presence here is 1,300 miles from Nebraska, which had been the disease’s farthest point west, and that jump worried officials and bat conservationists.

“Such a massive jump in geographical location leads us to believe that we humans are most likely responsible for its most recent spread,” said Katie Gillies, director of imperiled species for Bat Conservation International.

Officials said Thursday they don’t know how the little brown bat found near North Bend came into contact with the fungus, but they believe the bat was from a subspecies that’s from the West. That means it didn’t somehow hitch a ride on a truck, for example, that came from an infected state.

The fungus attacks the skin of hibernating bats, damaging delicate wing tissue. It disturbs hibernation, which in turn depletes bats’ fat reserves and causes dehydration and death.

“To lovers of wildlife and especially bats, today’s news is very disappointing,” Hibbard said.

Finding the bat

Hikers found the weak and sick bat March 11 on a trail near North Bend about 30 miles east of Seattle. They took it to Progressive Animal Welfare Society’s wildlife hospital in Lynnwood for care.

The bat died two days later. It had symptoms common in bats sickened by the fungus, including what looked like white powder on its muzzle and wings as well as a skin infection.

PAWS then sent the bat to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center for testing. The center confirmed through fungal culture, molecular and pathology analyses that the bat had white-nose syndrome.

“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, veterinarian for state Fish & 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.”

Officials declined to name the trail where the bat was found. They expected it to be difficult to pinpoint where the bat may have come from given that little brown bats, Myotis lucifugus, are found in rock crevices, trees or buildings.

Other bats at risk

Other hibernating bat species that have contracted the disease are northern long-eared bat, eastern small-footed bat, Indiana bat, gray bat, tricolored bat, and big brown bat.

The response in the state is in the early stages, scientists said, adding they don’t yet know whether other bats came into contact with the infected little brown bat, how widely distributed the fungus may be here, and whether it can spread to drier environments like Eastern Washington.

“We have a sample size of one so it’s hard to draw any conclusion from that,” said Greg Falxa, a wildlife biologist for state Fish & Wildlife.

Wildlife officials said signs of white-nose syndrome in bats include:

▪ what looks like white powder on their nose, wings or ears during hibernation when their body temperature is reduced and the environment is near freezing.

▪ emaciation.

▪ damaged wings that could hurt their ability to fly.

▪ unusual activity during winter, including flying outside during freezing temperatures.

People can help stop the accidental spread of the fungus by following decontamination guidelines, officials said.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Bat hotline

Officials investigating white-nose syndrome in bats in Washington state have set up a hotline for people to call should they find dead bats or notice bats behaving unusually, such as flying outside during the day or in freezing weather.

Report what you see by calling the Washington state Department of Fish & Wildlife’s hotline at 800-606-8768. Or fill out a report online at wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/wns, which also has information about white-nose syndrome in the state.

More information on the syndrome in the U.S. and in Canada is online at whitenosesyndrome.org. That’s also where decontamination guidelines have been posted.

Don’t handle animals that are dead or appear sick, wildlife officials warned.