Tag Archives: christina kocer

A decade fighting a deadly bat disease

You can hear the desperation in Christina Kocer’s voice, as she describes how it felt to find bats dying from a mysterious cause in the winter of 2007. She and other scientists watched helplessly as bats in the Northeast succumbed to what would become known as white-nose syndrome, a disease that has devastated bat populations.

“Bats weren’t behaving normally. In the middle of winter, when they should have been hibernating, we were finding them flying around outside their caves,” says Kocer, white-nose syndrome coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region. “By 2009, it looked as though all bats would be gone.”

Fortunately, ten years on, all bats are not gone. But neither is the threat. While we’ve learned a lot, biologists like Kocer continue to race the clock, looking for ways to detect, treat, and reduce the spread of the disease. The Service, along with federal, state, and private partners, has completed a national response plan for managing white-nose syndrome and is carrying it out.

You don’t need to be a scientist to be concerned. Bats are important not only from an ecological standpoint, but also from an economical one. They eat tons of insects nightly, providing a natural benefit to farmers and foresters, not to mention those who enjoy the outdoors. Some research suggests that bats could save American agriculture more than 3 billion dollars in pest control every year.

A single bat eats thousands of insects a night, offering free pest management. Credit: Ann Froschauer, USFWS

Since its discovery, white-nose syndrome has spread rapidly throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada and is now found in 31 states and five provinces. It has killed more than six million bats, with mortality rates exceeding 90 percent for many sites and species. It has been confirmed in nine species, two of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as endangered and another as threatened.

We now know that white-nose syndrome is caused by a fungusPseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short — that’s primarily spread among bats as they hibernate in caves and abandoned mines. Pd disrupts bats’ hibernation, causing them to rouse more frequently and for longer periods of time during the winter, burning up their stores of fat. Some even leave their caves and mines during the winter and early spring and become victims of hypothermia, predation, and starvation.

We’ve learned that some species, like the little brown bat, tri-colored bat, and northern long-eared bat, are more susceptible to the disease, while others show resistance.

Little brown bat infected with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont. Credit: Marvin Moriarty, USFWS

Scientists today have new ways of detecting the fungus, including using ultraviolet light. Field research on treatment has begun, and work on vaccines and molecular and genetic tools to improve bat survival is underway.

Bats aren’t the only ones who hang out in caves and abandoned mines. People who enter places where bats hibernate, whether for work or recreation, can pick up the Pd fungus on their clothes, shoes, and gear, and spread it to the next site they visit. The Service and its partners have created decontamination protocols that have reduced the spread of the disease by humans.

It’s important that all cave visitors follow decontamination protocols to reduce the spread of white-nose syndrome. Credit: Wikipedia via Creative Commons

There have been some promising developments. Little brown bats have survived multiple years of infection, and some bat colonies that were nearly wiped out are gradually growing in numbers, bringing hope for recovery.

When asked about the outlook now, Kocer seems cautiously optimistic.

“There is evidence of little brown bats surviving white-nose syndrome and reproducing,” she said. “Juveniles have been born, survived, and reproduced.”

What we’re working for: healthy little brown bats. Credit: Ann Froschauer, USFWS

And while a decade may seem like a long time, Kocer notes, “Ten years is roughly the lifespan of a little brown bat, so we’ve seen only one generation since the disease was discovered.”

In that generation, we’ve learned a lot about white-nose syndrome and the importance of communication and collaboration in fighting wildlife diseases. While the situation remains dire, the knowledge and experience gained will guide the Service and its partners in the fight to stop white-nose syndrome in the next generation, and address mysterious illnesses in the future.

Visit our Bat Conservation Map to learn more about these amazing creatures.

“Bats get caught in your hair – I saw it on TV!”

Today you're hearing from Christina Kocer, the white-nose syndrome coordinator for our Northeast Region. Credit: USFWS

Today you’re hearing from Christina Kocer, the white-nose syndrome coordinator for our Northeast Region. Credit: USFWS

 

Halloween means zombies, witches, vampires, and goblins lurk in the shadows and around every corner. Toothy, carved pumpkins and images of bats silhouetted against a full moon abound.

I admit the idea of encountering a zombie does not sit well with me; however, bats are a different story. Despite their spooky image, bats are far from terrifying, and I can assure you, they really don’t want anything to do with your hair. 

Bats get a bad rap. I recently watched a movie that depicted bats as swarming, voracious creatures with chameleon-like abilities to change colors and hide in plain sight, waiting to attack.

That is terrifying, right? But that is about as far from reality as you can get.

Here's an exotic one for you. The Rodrigues flying fox is the only native mammal from the island of Rodrigues in the Mauritius Island belt near Madagascar. These endangered bats were brought into captivity in the late 1970s when their numbers were less than 100 on the island. Photo courtesy of Organization for Bat Conservation, credit to Steve Gettle. Read more at their site.

Here’s an exotic one for you. The Rodrigues flying fox (which has a wingspan of about 3 feet) is the only native mammal from the island of Rodrigues in the Mauritius Island belt near Madagascar. These endangered bats were brought into captivity in the late 1970s when their numbers were less than 100 on the island. Photo courtesy of Organization for Bat Conservation, credit to Steve Gettle. Read more at their site.

As much as I’d love to see a bat turn from black to purple to green, it just won’t happen. Instead, real bats are likely to use their natural color to just blend in and hide by tucking underneath tree bark or burying themselves in clumps of leaves. And as long as we are clearing the air, bats…

  • will not fly into your hair;
  • will not suck your blood;
  • will not try to eat you alive; and
  • will not chew through your siding, your shutters, or your attic vents.

Bats are not birds, they are not giant insects, and they are not flying rodents. They do not build nests. They will not breed like rabbits and rapidly infest your house. They are not blind. They are not flying, disease ridden vermin searching out unsuspecting humans to infect.

Well, if they aren’t going to attack me in my sleep, build nests in my hair, or try to eat my brains, what the heck are they, and what do they do? Bats are mammals — the only mammals capable of flight. They are covered in soft fur and give birth to live young (pups) which are nursed until they are old enough to venture out on their own.

A tri-colored bat showing signs of white-nose syndrome while hibernating in a Massachusetts cave. Credit: Jon Reichard

A tri-colored bat showing signs of white-nose syndrome while hibernating in a Massachusetts cave. Credit: Jon Reichard

Even though some people think they look like flying mice, they are not closely related to rodents. The bones in their wings are the same bones you have in your own hand. Bats are very diverse, making up about one quarter of all mammals worldwide:

  • They range in size from the world’s smallest mammal, the small, bumblebee-sized bumblebee bat to the large flying foxes, with their 6-foot wingspans.
  • They are pollinators, fruit eaters, seed dispersers, and insect devourers.
  • They can have big ears, small ears or pointy ears;
  • Fancy wrinkly faces or a face that looks remarkably like fox’s;
  • Small, pointed noses or noses that resemble a leaf; and they can have long tails or short tails.

And yes, some bats feed on blood. But don’t worry; even though vampire bats do exist, these very specialized creatures are smaller than your typical cell phone and aren’t the terrifying creatures you may be imagining. Vampire bats live in Central and South America and typically feed on the blood of livestock, and believe it or not, their feeding ritual goes largely unnoticed by their prey. Their saliva has even been used to develop medicines for stroke patients.

Check out this blog post from our Director Dan Ashe, ”The Real Horror Would Be If Bats Disappear”

Closer to home, here in the Northeast, our native bats are small, and most weigh about the same as a few pennies.

Eastern red bats are America's most abundant tree bats, roosting right out in the foliage of deciduous or sometimes evergreen trees. Read more at Bat Conservation International. Credit: Marianne Moore

Eastern red bats are America’s most abundant tree bats, roosting right out in the foliage of deciduous or sometimes evergreen trees. Read more at Bat Conservation International. Credit: Marianne Moore

White-nose syndrome has led to a 99-percent drop in northern long-eared bat populations in the Northeast, leading to our proposal earlier this month to protect them as endangered. Credit: Al Hicks/NYSDEC

White-nose syndrome has led to a 99-percent drop in northern long-eared bat populations in the Northeast, leading to our proposal earlier this month to protect them as endangered. Credit: Al Hicks/NYSDEC

The thousands of insects they eat each night save farmers millions of dollars on insect control and crop damage. That makes bats the most organic form of insect control you can get. Our local bats are agile fliers who are adept at navigating through thick forests in search of their insect prey. They readily devour the pests that eat our food crops and trees, and spread disease.

Those bats that seem to be swooping down to grab a chunk of your hair? Yep, those bats might just be going after insects too — the insects that are going after you.

Bats are long-lived species; some individuals have even been documented to have survived for over 30 years. Quite unlike rodents, most bats are only able to produce one to two pups each year (some species may have up to 4 pups).

Unfortunately, right now bats have something to fear themselves – white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS is a rapidly spreading fungal disease that has resulted in the catastrophic decline of bats throughout eastern North America.

Over 5.7 million bats have already died, and because bats are long-lived and produce so few young, it will take many generations for populations to recover from this disease.

And, speaking of diseases, the claim that all bats are rabid is yet another fear perpetuated by popular media.

While it’s true that bats can carry rabies, less than 1 percent of wild bats are actually infected with the disease. Even so, don’t go picking up any bats you might find on the ground. That bat may be sick or injured, and it won’t be worth the mandatory rabies shots you’ll have to get if you try to handle it. Call your local wildlife biologist for help.

While there is no reason for us to fear these beneficial critters, I admit, it’s unnerving to have a bat flying circles in your living room. But, if that happens to you, gather your wits, remember why bats are good, and help the little guy escape safely by opening a window so the bat can fly out.

Despite what you may have seen on TV, the world is a better place for everyone with bats in it. 🙂