A bat some fear may have been infected with white nose syndrome has been spotted on Vancouver Island, the first such sighting in the province of British Columbia. The deadly disease is inflicting massive damage to North America’s bat population and was only recently confirmed on the West Coast near Seattle, Washington.
An unusual sighting of a bat along the coastline near Victoria, B.C., could be an indication that white nose syndrome has finally made its way across the border and into B.C., although no actual cases of the disease have been confirmed.
“This is a serious ecological crisis,” says Paige Ericksson-McGee of Habitat Acquisition Trust, a non-profit land trust operating in southern Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands. “This could decimate our entire bat population in the region of some species so we need to be very vigilant. We need people to be aware of where the bats are.” Ericksson-McGee advises that any unusual bat sightings should be reported to local authorities.
White nose syndrome (WNS) first made its North American presence known in New York State in 2006 and has since wreaked havoc on bat populations across the eastern half of the U.S. as well as in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces, killing over 90 per cent of bats at most sites in which the disease has spread.
Caused by a fungus (suitably named Pseudogymnoascus destructans), the disease is spread bat-to-bat or by humans carrying fungal spores on their clothing from one cave to another. The fungus grows on the bat’s face and wings and appears to destroy muscle tissue, making it increasingly difficult for the bat to fly. So far an estimated 6 million bats in North America have died from the disease, potentially affecting agricultural production in Canada and the U.S. for the foreseeable future.
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“For us, bats play a huge role in the environment,” says wildlife expert Bruce Rodrigues. “They are insect eaters and their role in controlling insect populations is important for agriculture and forestry,” said Rodrigues who cites one recent study which estimates that WNS will force industry in the U.S. to spend billions more on pesticides to control insect populations. Another study reports that in British Columbia alone bats contribute as much as $53 million in pest control. Bats also serve to cut down on the spread of insect-borne diseases that threaten human health such as the Zika virus and malaria.
But a new study led by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, reports that many bats in Asia -where WNS has coexisted with bat populations for much longer than in North America- have developed biological resistance to the fungus, leading researchers to hope that some bat species in North America may be able to acquire similar natural resistance to the fungus in time to prevent extinction.
Co-author of the study Kate Langwig says that while some North American bat species are likely headed for extinction, others show more promise, noting that one North American species, the big brown bat, so far appears to be less dramatically affected by WNS, while others such as the northern long-eared bat has seen its populations practically destroyed.
“The northern long-eared bat suffers really high fungal loads and nearly all individuals are infected–there’s no overlap with the Asian species,” Langwig says. “From previous work, we’ve seen their populations crashing toward extinction, so it could be a poor omen for that species.”