11 february 2013

Bat die-off catastrophic, says wildlife pathologist


(AP Photo/New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Ryan von Linden, File)
White nose syndrome has killed more than 6.7 million bats in eastern North America since it was first detected in upstate New York in 2006.

The deadly white-nose fungus appears to have killed a bat in yet another Canadian province. Wildlife officials in Prince Edward Island are asking the public to report any sightings of live or dead bats after a carcass was found last week.

As many as 6.7 million North American bats are thought to have died of the fungus according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and partners. Tens of thousands of bats are dying in the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. This new case would be the first in Prince Edward Island.

“Catastrophic,” is how pathologist Scott McBurney of the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre at the Atlantic Veterinary College describes the die-off. In one hour, a bat can eat 600 insects. A colony of 500 bats can eat a million in one night. These are bugs that could otherwise be eating crops or spreading diseases like West Nile virus. Mr. Burney spoke with RCI’s Lynn Desjardins.
“It’s a very sad situation…” said Mr. McBurney. “This type of significant mortality, if it was happening in other animals that were larger and did not hibernate, the public would be quite shocked to see the number of carcasses.”

The situation is so bad that conservationists are trying to get bats put on the endangered species list. There has been an emergency assessment of three species affected by the fungus by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). “A recommendation is before our federal minister of the environment right now to list these species as endangered because of the severe catastrophic effect of this disease on those populations,” said Mr. McBurney. To do so would provide habitat protection as well as funding to help monitor the species and research the disease. 

We already know that the fungus causes bats to wake up frequently when they are supposed to be hibernating over the winter. This causes them to use up more energy. When their fats stores are used up they go out of their caves, or mines to find food. Since it is generally unavailable in winter they die of starvation and hyperthermia.

A bat found in New Brunswick killed by white-nose syndrome. Specks of white fungus can be seen on the animal's wings and ears.
(Courtesy of Karen Vanderwolf, New Brunswick Museum)

For now there is no treatment available for the fungus, and it can live a long time in the bats’ habitat.

In New York state, where white-nose fungus was first detected in North America, 90 per cent of the bat population has died, according to the U.S. National Wildlife Health Centre.

Bats live between 30 and 35 years. Because they only bear one offspring every year, scientists predict it could take many years for the population to recover.

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