Over the next 2 years, the PTB team will revisit the reintroduction sites to count the number of PTB burrows and adult beetles, which will indicate the success and survival rate of the lab-reared PTBs.
Between the sprawl of the Northern Virginia beltway and the Richmond capital lies a window to the rich natural heritage of Virginia’s Coastal Plain: 76,000 acres of old-growth forests, swamps, bogs, wetlands and pine savannas.
There’s a catch, though.
The nature of the area is occasionally interrupted by artillery fire and helicopters, and the other sounds of live training under combat-like conditions.
Yet the wildlife at Virginia’s largest military reservation don’t seem to mind.
In fact, the Army’s Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County seems to attract some of the rarest plants and animals in the eastern U.S.: Threatened and endangered bats. The rarest orchid east of the Mississippi. A stunning pink wetland flower and a grass-like herb that survive in just a few states. There’s even some rare underground crustaceans.
We interviewed the biologists who oversee these species, including a biologist who made a rare discovery here, stumbling upon a critter that had never been documented in the state before. Check out the story here.
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.
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 fungus — Pseudogymnoascus 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.
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.
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.”
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.