Colorado biologists concerned by latest spread of fungal disease in bats
April 5, 2016
Steamboat Springs — Biologists in Colorado are on high alert after a deadly fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in the Eastern United States suddenly jumped 1,300 miles and killed a bat on the West Coast near Seattle.
For the first time, bats in this state are facing white nose syndrome on two fronts, and the scientists who are racing to learn more about the small and elusive animals are worried.
"We're all kind of nervous," Rob Schorr, a bat researcher with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, said Monday after sitting in on an emergency phone call with a working group of bat biologists from western states who were discussing the latest case in Washington. "How do you control this when you don't know how it got to where it is now? The people in Colorado are still trying to wrestle with what this does actually mean."
Some scientists think the latest case was spread by humans, because the fungus can be transported on shoes and clothing.
But Schorr said biologists have more questions than answers about the latest case of the fungal disease in bats.
Can it be as devastating in the west as it has been in the east?
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Before last week, no cases of white nose had been detected west of the Rocky Mountains.
The fungus, which was first detected in 2006, kills bats in a cruel way by making them itchy in the winter and waking them up when they need to be hibernating and conserving energy.
In some areas on the East Coast, the fungus has killed entire populations of bats, leaving the skies without an important predator.
Scientists fear if the disease continues to spread and wipe out large bat populations, there could be major consequences.
"Anytime an unfamiliar disease gets into a native wildlife population, there's a lot at stake," Tina Jackson, species conservation coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said Monday.
In Colorado, Jackson said, one of the greatest benefits of bats is insect control.
A single little brown bat, a common species in Colorado that is most threatened by white nose, can eat as many as 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour.
Jackson said while the detection of white nose in Washington is troubling, it could also present opportunities.
"If there can be an upside, it might make us focus more and not get complacent," Jackson said. "All of a sudden, it does sort of raise the antennae back up and have us say it's not time to relax. This is still important."
She added the case also gives scientists here an opportunity to watch how the disease plays out in a state that has more in common with Colorado in terms of climate and habitat than the East Coast states where the fungus originated.
"In a lot of ways, the way white nose reacts in the Pacific Northwest is going to be a lot more similar to how it will react here," she said. "We're going to be very interested in what's happening up there and hopeful they can come up with some great ideas and help us out if it gets here."
In the meantime, efforts continue to better understand the 18 species of bats that call Colorado home.
And white nose's jump may make research Schorr has been doing on a large maternity colony of little brown bats on a ranch on the shores of Lake Catamount south of Steamboat Springs even more critical.
Two years ago, the researcher implanted small transponders in the skin of several bats so their arrival and departure from the Rehder Ranch could be tracked.
With just one year of data, Schorr said he already has learned some things about the little brown bats.
"My assumptions that the bats stay there all summer long is wrong," he said as he described how data showed the bats would periodically leave the Rehder Ranch during the summer. "They take week hiatuses. My theory is, they are going to another roost."
Schorr said he also was surprised to learn the bats don't seem to remain here past the middle of September.
"I thought they were staying until October or November," he said.
The study is still in its infancy, however, and biologists still have not been able to confirm where these bats go in the winter.
"It's still early in the process for an animal that can live for 40 years," Schorr said of his research.
Throughout the next couple of years, Schorr can catch the bats, scan their unique PIT tags and track changes to the bats across time.
With baseline data, he'll be able to better understand what white nose does to a large bat population if it ever does get here.
Schorr will be back at the Rehder Ranch soon to take pictures of the bats' wings and study their guano to get a better understanding of their diets.
"The baseline of what's happening to these bats prior to them possibly being introduced to a disease is valuable," Schorr said. "Hopefully, we won't have to experience white nose here."