What is White Nose Syndrome?

Every year, from the middle of April to the end of October, the bats fly out of the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It is a spectacular site, and hundreds of people from all over the world come to watch. The park rangers give talks about the Washington DC bats and their habitat, as well as the types of insects they primarily eat. But the days of watching the bats fly maybe over in the next decade. White-nose Syndrome is killing our District of Columbia bat population.

White-nose Syndrome or WNS, as it has come to be known, can killed up to 100% of a hibernating colony. A fairly new disease, WNS has spread to 25 states from the northeastern states to central states and is now in Washington state as well. The name is derived from the white fungus that grows on the muzzle, ears and wings of bats as they hibernate. WNS was first discovered in New York state in 2007, and since then, millions of District of Columbia bats have been killed. What is further frustrating Washington DC researchers is that WNS is spreading despite a massive effort to contain the disease. The consequences of this are unknown, but bats are a primary resource in insect containment. Simply put, bats eat insects. Some of those insects, if not checked, can be lethal to crops. If the crops fail, there will be food shortages. This is only one scenario that research think might happen. What could happen is mere speculation at this point.

There is a debate going on as to where WNS actually came from. Most believe that the disease originated in Europe and was possibly brought to the United States on a traveler’s clothing. Fungus spores are hearty and can live for thousands of years. So even though contamination and spread of WNS is primarily through bat to bat contact, it is possible that humans could spread it to Washington DC areas that are not yet infected. Wildlife experts urge the people who like to observe bats in the natural habitat to decontaminate their clothing, before traveling to another location.

If this disease could be transmitted to humans, with them dying at the rate of the District of Columbia bats, it would be a pandemic, according the World Heath Organization and the CDC. Bats are an important part of our ecosystem. So a serious approach must be taken to prevent the further spread of WNS.

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