Year of the Bat: Colorado researchers not sleeping on white-nose syndrome

Welcome to the Year of the Bat.


Make that Years of the Bat.

What? You didn’t hear? Have you been living in a cave?

Fifteen months ago, the United Nations declared 2011 and 2012 as the International Year of the Bat to promote awareness about the under-appreciated insect gobbler, pollinator and seed disperser. The bat, you see, has fallen on hard times. There’s no easy way to explain this, so we hope you’re sitting down. Or upside down. Here it goes: Statistics show more than half of bat species in the United States are either suffering steep population declines or they are already listed as endangered. A major reason why is white-nose syndrome — a mysterious disease that is wiping out bats by the millions.

On New Year’s Eve in New York City, a 15-second ad trumpeting 2012 as the International Year of the Bat flashed on the 20-foot-tall CBS JumboTron on 42nd Street in Times Square. The public service announcement will be playing on the big screeen once an hour for 18 hours a day until April.

Here in Colorado, well, you’re reading it. But don’t mistake the dearth of bat publicity in this state for a dearth of bats. Colorado has bats. Lots of them. Depending on who is counting, there are anywhere between 18 and 20 species of bats in Colorado, and all but five of them are vulnerable to white-nose syndrome. The disease derives from a fungus that infests bat faces and wings. It strikes while bats hibernate in the winter, when their immune systems are suppressed and body temperatures are low.

The Townsend's big-eared bat lives in Colorado. (Source: U.S. Government)
“We … suspect that many of Colorado’s bat species might be at risk if the disease continues to spread and cause mortality as it has in northeastern North America over the past few winters,” said Paul Cryan, a U.S. Geological Survey research scientist in Fort Collins and one of the authors of an analysis that measured bats’ economic contribution to the ag industry in billions of dollars.

At least two of the insectivorous hibernating species of bats that live in Colorado, the big brown bat and little brown bat, have been affected by white-nose syndrome back east. And the fungus that causes it is moving this way. Oklahoma and Missouri are the closest states where it has been confirmed.

“We presume that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome will continue spreading westward through their populations into Colorado in the coming years, if it is not here already,” Cryan said Tuesday. “Many of the other … species of hibernating bats that occur in Colorado are only found in western parts of North America and have not yet been exposed to the fungus, as far as we know, so it remains to be seen how susceptible they might be if and when the disease arrives here in Colorado.”

Biologists have learned a lot about bats. The nocturnal creatures, for example, use echolocation to bounce sound waves off objects in order to navigate and hunt. More recently, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Southern Denmark discovered that bats also have “superfast” muscles, which were previously thought to only be found in the noise-making organs of rattlesnakes, birds and fish. Bats are the only known mammal to possess “superfast” muscles.

But as much as scientists know about bats, there is a lot they don’t know.

“We certainly need more funding to do more survey work and we need to figure out where our bats are and what our bat populations look like so we can tell if something is going on,” said Tina Jackson, species conservation coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We need baseline data.”

Last month, Congress allotted $4 million to study the outbreak of white-nose syndrome. Other government grants also bankroll bat research. But officials say more money is needed.

“We always need more funding,” Jackson said. “We didn’t even know about white-nose syndrome five years ago. There’s a lot of information we need to know about the fungus and the die-off.”

As a preventative measure, the U.S. Forest Service closed some caves and abandoned mines in Colorado to protect bats from the white-nose syndrome fungus that researchers say humans can transmit from clothing and equipment. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has not taken such an action.

“Before the merger, the Division of Wildlife didn’t have any caves in its inventory last winter,” Jackson said. “Parks does have a couple so I’m meeting with former State Parks staff next week to talk about how we can do some surveys, see what’s going on and assess the risk for white-nose syndrome.”