ALBANY, NY – A looming extinction of bats from a spreading fungal disease has federal wildlife officials talking about whether bats should be raised in captivity to prevent a complete disappearance.
Four years after the mysterious White Nose Syndrome was found in a cave outside Albany, more than a million bats in 11 states are dead, and researchers still have no way to stop it, J. Colemann, WNS coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday.
“We are looking at everything. Even the re-establishment of bat populations is being considered, and that could include the captive maintenance and holding of bats, full-on propagation, down to the temporary holding of bat colonies during the winter in some kind of protected bunker,” he said.
That such radical steps — already being done for some amphibians that have disappeared from the wild — are being discussed stems from the rapid spread of the illness, which is caused by a cold-loving, cave-dwelling white fungus that invades hibernating bats’ noses and mouths.
First found in 2006, the fungus strikes bats gathered in large numbers in caves during winter hibernation. Infected bats wake up before spring, burning precious fat reserves and starving to death as they flee caves before the return of their insect diet.
This summer, researchers warned the little brown bat, one of the nation’s most common bats, could be wiped out within six years if the outbreak remains unchecked.
Efforts to find a chemical anti-fungal or a natural control, like a fungus-eating microbe, have so far proved fruitless, Colemann said. In an experiment last winter, hibernating bats roused during application of a test anti-fungal all died, Coleman said.
Coleman said the fungus lingers in caves, so reintroducing bats into an infected cave won’t work. “Even if we raise bats, we have to have a plan and a place to release the animals back into the wild,” he said.
One of the best hopes for now is that some bats may prove naturally resistant to the disease, thus averting complete annihilation, said both Colemann and Carl Hertzog, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is part of the federal effort to combat the bat plague.
“Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this natural resistance is happening yet,” said Hertzog.