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As white-nose syndrome wipes out little brown bats, groups petition for emergency protection

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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More than one million bats have been killed by the deadly fungal infection known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) since the condition first turned up in 2006. One of the hardest hit species, the once-common little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), might now face extinction as a result of the disease. As a result, scientists and conservation groups filed an emergency request on December 16 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect the little brown bat under the Endangered Species Act.

“The little brown bat is in imminent danger of extinction in its northeastern core range due to white-nose syndrome, and the species is likely in danger of extinction throughout North America,” Boston University biologist Thomas H. Kunz said in a prepared statement. Earlier this year, Kunz published a study that predicted the little brown bat’s extinction within 16 to 20 years. Kunz and fellow BU bat scientist Jonathan D. Reichard have now submitted their own independent little white bat status review (PDF) to the FWS showing just how badly the species is at risk. In some bat caves where WNS is present, mortality nears 100 percent, according to their report.

Emergency listing for a species does happen, but not very often, says Ann Froschauer, national white-nose syndrome communications leader for FWS. “Given the urgency of white-nose syndrome and recent information about predicted declines in little brown bat populations, the Service is committed to quickly reviewing scientific information, both published and provided by organizations such as these, in assessing the status of little brown bats and other bat species affected by WNS,” she said in a prepared statement.

So what would adding the little brown bat to the endangered species list actually do for the species? I asked Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the conservation groups behind the emergency request. Her answer is long, but worth reproducing in full:

First of all, listing means that the federal government is required to take conservation measures to prevent harm, and support recovery. Without listing, there are few regulatory mechanisms to compel the government to pro-actively protect and restore particular species. It is especially important to have this tool for species conservation when the species is controversial, obscure, or underappreciated, or when protecting the species could inconvenience someone or cost money. The law provides a means of protecting those (in this case, imperiled species) that would otherwise have no “voice” in our political and legal system.

Second, this accountability means that the government must show what it is doing to protect the species, and in order to take action, usually some amount of resources must be devoted to the effort. Listing usually brings funding for conservation measures. In the case of the little brown bat, one of the most pressing needs is research on white-nose syndrome, and to date, this has been inadequately funded, at best.

Third, critical habitat for the species is usually designated. Species need places to forage, reproduce, and carry out other vital aspects of their life cycle. In the case of the little brown bat and other bat species affected by white-nose syndrome, they need safe places to hibernate. Designation of critical habitat for the little brown bat would protect crucial sites for its survival and recovery. As the attached paper describes, critical habitat is a great aid to species’ recovery.

Fourth, listing of a species is often followed by the development of a recovery plan. This is a “map” for how the species will be protected and nurtured back to a stable, healthy population level. The attached paper also addresses how species with recovery plans fare better than those without.

Fifth, species listing simply puts more of a spotlight on the plight of a particular species, and in this way, helps to garner more concern about its survival, and more attention to its needs. Increased public awareness is an important benefit of species’ listing.

Meanwhile, a new study published this month in the journal BMC Biology reveals more about why WNS is so deadly.  It found that the WNS fungus is disrupting the skin membranes on bats’ wings, and with it many bodily functions critical to the animals’ survival during hibernation. “A bat’s wings are obviously critical for flying, but they also play a vital part in essential functions such as body temperature, blood pressure, water balance and blood and gas circulation and exchange,” lead author Carol Meteyer with the U.S. Geological Service National Wildlife Health Center told the Albany Times Union. The study found that WNS has many similarities to the deadly chytrid fungus that is devastating amphibian populations around the world.

Can the little brown bat be saved from this killer fungus and eventual extinction? Only time will tell.

Photo: Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome. By Al Hicks, New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation, courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 2:14 pm 12/28/2010

    Perhaps some external influence is affecting both these bats and amphibians’ ability to regulate their skin temperatures, making them susceptible to these fungal infections…

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  2. 2. juxtapose82 9:29 am 12/29/2010

    I’m not a bat hater but why do people need to step in here? Just like the chytrid fungus, we as people have not done anything to impact the bats survival. I enjoy them because of low mosquito counts but who are we to not let nature run its course?

    Please refrain from telling me about ecosystems in response to this post. I know that every animal plays a crucial role in support but these current ecosystems haven’t been in play for very long. Even in the course of human history there have been some dramatic changes to include our own rise to the apex predator status. My question is merely is there some underlying reason that we need to involve ourselves besides we like bats?

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  3. 3. beachbunniebb 11:58 am 12/29/2010

    Just to add my input to the last comment, we DO NOT know if "we as people have not done anything to impact the bats survival". The fungus is still a mystery to us and for all we know humans could be the reason for the spread of the disease. It has been hypothesized that our increase in the use of pesticides may have altered the bats ability to fight off the fungus… or even the act of spelunking as a leisurely sport may have spread the fungus to populations that wouldn’t normally be susceptible. There are just too many uncertainties to assume that humans have not had an impact on the bats survival.

    Little brown bats used to be the most plentiful of any bats species on the east coast, and now they may face extinction within a 10 year span if we let nature "run its course". If we don’t intervene at moments such as this (especially when the underlying cause may ultimately be our fault), then what’s the point in monitoring wildlife at all? I fully support the intervention of scientists to try to save the species of bats that have been affected by WNS. I just hope the USFWS realizes this too.

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  4. 4. juxtapose82 12:38 pm 12/29/2010

    First off, thank you for not just snubbing your nose at the thought that we might not have anything to do with it. And I do understand that sure, we may have a hand in this problem.

    The butterfly effect can be added though to put us at the helm of many extinctions. This is not however a case of over-hunting or destruction of habitat so the direct impact of humans is hard to distinguish.

    As for monitoring wildlife, we watch wildlife to figure out how are meals are going to be affected. That is a harsh but true reality of it. And by watching wildlife we also see that when populations are large it is easier for things like disease to pass through and wither the numbers. Once the numbers decrease the bats are less likely to encounter the fungus and vice versa and a rebuild begins.

    Or, a species is unable to adapt and they go the way of extinction. In this case a new creature steps in and fills the role of the previous species and, as they say, life goes on.

    I know that this is sounding heartless to the brown bat but this is the way of natural selection. And like it or not we as humans are here the same way. One of the new problems that species encounter is to survive us. So, being that we are one of the new measuring sticks of adaptation, surviving mankind is an adaptation that we even need to make. We are on that road now I think, with a heightened sense of consequences to our actions, but still have quite a way to go. As we are programmed I just think that we need to focus on our survival first. Archetypes come and go but until all life comes to an end there will never be a void forever.

    So I do agree with you that we can’t rule out man’s indirect involvement, I just take on a slightly more Darwinian approach to the matter. Who knows, maybe Man’s whole ‘reason for being here’ is to be the trigger of the next mass extinction. Sad to think about but we might just be a rung on evolution for everything to press past.

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  5. 5. beachbunniebb 12:52 pm 12/29/2010

    Very good points indeed. It’s my personal opinion that we have destroyed the ecosystem and natural processes so much within the past couple of centuries that I believe we "owe" it to the natural world to help out as much as we can. Especially in dire situations as the little brown bats possibly going extinct. Yes that is the way of natural selection, but I don’t think that the whole process has been completely "natural". I think that we are heavily involved in the massive die-off of bats somehow, but we just aren’t sure how as of quite yet.

    And a side note that made me giggle.. you stated "As we are programmed I just think that we need to focus on our survival first." Our population numbers are exploding, and I don’t think we’re going extinct anytime soon! The human population survival is the last thing on my worry list at the moment.

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  6. 6. juxtapose82 1:57 pm 12/29/2010

    Touche on your last point, we are exploding in number. And I realize how that could come off but I merely mean that on our current course we will kill ourselves. Or as I stated in my last talking point we might get too big and be wiped out by swine flu’s big brother. So you’re right, no study shows that we will be gone in 10 years but I think to make sure that rings true next millenia that we start working on it now.

    Glad to see some people on this site are at least willing to hear both sides of an argument. I look forward to differing with you in the future.

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  7. 7. garfiche 8:38 pm 12/29/2010

    Those who espouse evolution now want to deny the progress of evolution?
    This bat doesn’t have what it takes to remain on the planet, let it go in peace.

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  8. 8. E-boy 6:13 pm 01/2/2011

    For starters, humans have contributed directly and indirectly to the spread of chytrid fungus. So, we are not free of blame. For finishers one of the possibilities for the rise of fungal infections in general, including a nasty strain now surfacing on the west coast of the U.S. that can cause deadly infections in otherwise healthy humans, is global warming. We certainly have contributed to that.

    If I need to point out to you the importance of bio-diversity for the well being and survival of our own species then clearly you have neglected your reading for at least the last 30 years. It might strike you as odd but healthy eco systems are diverse ones. They provide services that people cannot provide for themselves. Insects alone provide about 70 billion dollars in free labor to agriculture (Labor we cannot, for all our technology, replace). Little brown bats play a role in insect populations and losing them could impact all sorts of things including plant diversity in their ranges and disease vectors (Some insects eat plants and unrestricted by predators could alter substantially differential survival in plant species within the bats range), and some, of course like to suck mammalian blood (Mosquitos a known vector).

    If you are still skeptical about the importance of one species in a given eco system go check out what happened to Yellowstone national park when they re-introduced wolves. The whole ecology of the park changed from the top down. More predation led to fewer browsers, fewer browsers meant more of their favorite foods to eat. That led to less secondary browsing and over grazing, which fundamentally altered plant diversity. That in turn changed insect, and fungus diversity, and the effect probably rolled all the way down into the microbial community.

    When and if humanity can create a self sustaining fully independent biosphere then we could take your attitude (although even then it would be inadvisable). As we cannot do this as yet, it’s probably a good idea to maintain as much bio-diversity as we can to keep ecological services we depend on up and running, and also to prevent unpleasant surprises.

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  9. 9. juxtapose82 9:40 am 01/4/2011

    E-Boy, I know you are trying to fight me but reading what you wrote you merely backed me up. I pointed out the majority of those things already and you left out how the bats inability to survive is not our fault. And please don’t start the global warming fight, I knew someone would. I believe that pollution is bad and we should conserve the planet as a whole but to say that GW is all our fault is just wrong especially taking into account our current decrease in angle to the sun. I am not a guy who thinks that GW is a myth but I do think that people way to happy to take your money are making it seem that we have a larger role than we do. Please don’t argue my point back to me with the torch of GW. And please reread my post and realize I am not trying to be smug, you just said everything I already did.

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  10. 10. penelope843 7:12 pm 01/4/2011

    Insectivorous bats threatened by White Nose Syndrome, such as the little brown bat, have a greater impact than merely making us more comfortable by consuming mosquitoes. Bats threatened by WNS consume a variety of crop-destroying pests, and thus their disappearance could have major agricultural and economic effects. An increased use of pesticides due to a widespread disappearance of bats could have consequences on human health as well.
    Some of us humans have evolved and adapted to the particular circumstances and ecosystems affected by bats at risk from WNS, and in our evolution we also gained the "ability" to greatly affect our surroundings. We can use this "adaptation" to preserve the bat-laden ecosystems we have adjusted to.
    We humans affect this Earth in a vast number of ways, and we are always trying to control and change things. It’s rather hypocritical for us to alter nature in so many ways, and then sit back and watch our bats go extinct because it’s "natural."
    You perhaps make a subtle naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it "right" or beneficial in the long-term. It is hard to discern between what is "natural" and what is caused by humans anyway.
    Besides, what’s wrong with wanting to preserve biodiversity just for the sake of it? Bats have been around for millions of years, and one must admit they are marvelous. This is not a strong argument itself, I know, but combined with important role bats play and the beneficial effects they have, we have much reason to want to save them.

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  11. 11. juxtapose82 8:20 am 01/5/2011

    Excellent argumentive points, even at the end with the ‘bats are cool’ vibe. And I stated in my original post, I don’t hate bats. I agree bats are cool.

    If you read above I do credit that yes, they are a vital participant in todays ecosystem. And yes, they do eat pest that damage human food supplies. All valid. However, I also say that another crreature (obviously not the next day but relatively soon) will emerge in place. That is the way evolution works and has worked for a long time as I’m sure you know. The one that fills that role in theory will be heartier to the new environment and thus be the proper benefactor. Again, right in line with Darwinism.

    Also, WNS is a fungus that is not likely (not impossible) but not likely carried by humans. We are too warm for the fungus to sustain in us. Could we carry it on our clothes and everything? Sure, but the contact would have to be very recent to contact with the bats to actually have a viable chance of infection.

    Plus, maybe this is natures way of thinning the herd. That is kind of where I pulled my original thought. If a population gets too big it often gets sick and is weeded down to a much more manageable number. This may be what it is. I am for finding that out but isn’t that a study that seems VERY hard to prove one way or the other.

    I just don’t like how we immediately refuse that it could be anything but human intervention. And if it was human intervention that started it maybe we aren’t the next best answer. Please don’t label me as bat hater of the year because of this. But it is a natural occurrence because we even if man has manipulated the environment to hostile for this creature (and again, I am not ruling that out) it is still the environment that is killing them. In a sick sort of way why is no one happy about the rise of the fungus? If we are to blame then we are helping another species thrive.

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