11 February 2009

White-nose Syndrome, or Just White Fungus?


After personally observing the Big Brown Bat discussed in this post, Dr. John Whitaker has told me... "The material on the nose appeared to be from the hibernaculum and was a mixture of dirt and hair stuck to the nose area and peeled right off with a needle. It was not white nose." Good news.

White-nose syndrome has received a lot of press lately. This disorder, which is characterized by a white fungus forming on the muzzle of hibernating bats, is currently known to exist in the northeastern United States and west to Pennsylvania. In just the past two years, it has led to the death of over 100,000 hibernating bats (primarily Little Brown Bat, but also Indiana Bat, Eastern Pipistrelle, Northern Long-eared Bat, and Small-footed Bat). This is bad news if you don't like mosquitos; one bat can eat up to 75 percent of its own weight in flying insects during a single summer.

Photo from New York Department of Environmental Conservation, www.dec.ny.gov

On January 31, before our recent spring weather (which is about to revert back to winter, by the way), I found a dead Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) just outside our back door. The bat was identified as a first year juvenile by Dr. John Whitaker based on my photos. While this little guy seemed pretty small when all folded up, when my coworker Rob Wolfe stretched it out to measure it, the wingspan measured a stunning 310mm! Other dimensions included: total length, 109mm; forearm, 43mm; tail, 41mm; hind foot, 10mm; and ear, 13mm, though this last measurement could have been conducted incorrectly.

Big Brown Bats can be found from southern Canada to northern South America, and into the West Indies. They can live up to 19 years, but many don't make it past their first winter because they don't store enough fat to last through hibernation. While all of our other species of bats migrate south and hibernate in warmer climates, the Big Brown Bat will spend the winter hibernating in cooler areas. They even will become active during this period of hibernation if they become too cold or if their hibernaculum is disturbed.

A variety of insects are eaten by Big Brown Bats during the spring-early fall, including dragonflies, moths, flying ants, flies, lacewing flies, and wasps. Most commonly, however, they feed on beetles.

It is possible that this bat died as a result of the cold temperature that it encountered when it left its hibernaculum. However, the white fungus on its muzzle makes me wonder if this bat could possibly have died as a result of white-nose syndrome, even though this disorder has not been observed as far west as Indiana (yet). The fungus on the bat I found looks a little different than the photos I've seen of bats that have white-nose syndrome. If anyone familiar with this disorder has thoughts on whether this is or is not white-nose syndrome, I would like to hear them.


Allison Vaughn said...

Yikes! I'd put the animal in the freezer and contact the USFWS about it. I know in Missouri, wildlife biologists are out searching for the disease here, but I just don't know about Indiana. I really hope it's an early sign of decay, but it looks mighty suspicious to me. Keep us all posted...Allison

Anonymous said...

I hope you had the good sense to get this bat to professionals studying this disease instead of just posting a blog asking for amatuers to comment.

Scott said...

I actually still have the bat and will be sending it to Indiana State University shortly. I emailed someone at USFWS about it and provided a link to see these photos, but I never heard back.

Anonymous said...

I'm a biologist with the USFWS. Please contact me regarding this bat. I stumbled upon your blog during a Google search. Thanks.


Mel said...

Bats, bees, and frogs(all endangered)have one thing in common; they are all scavenging for food over crops that have been genetically malformed to kill. Looks like there are consequences when you de-code the genetic design Nature created.

Scott said...

Hi Mel. Thanks for the comment. I completely agree with you. For some reason, people cannot understand that the tiniest of our impacts can have major impacts somewhere down the line. Just look at the impact that introduced earthworms are having? Who would have ever thought?