The disease that’s wiped out at least 7 million bats in the East and Midwest has now jumped to the West. Hikers in Washington, 30 miles east of Seattle, found a sick little brown bat on March 11 and took it to a wildlife sanctuary, where it died a few days later. The USGS National Wildlife Health Center analyzed the remains and announced that it had white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that irritates bats and rouses them from hibernation in the dead of winter. They leave their caves to forage, but soon starve from lack of insects. Once the infection gains a foothold in a bat colony, the mortality rate can reach 99 percent.
The deadly disease has jumped more than 1,300 miles from where it was last detected, in Nebraska and Minnesota. “This news is extremely disappointing and unnerving,” says Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adding that it’s probably been spreading in Washington, and perhaps other parts of the Northwest, for a while. “Researchers in Eastern caves have found that it can take a few years for fungal loads to build up to the point of causing disease in bats,” says Coleman, “so it may be that the fungus has been in the area for a few years already and is widespread.”
As to how white-nose syndrome reached Washington in the first place, the most likely explanation is that a caver visited an infected cave in the East, then carried spores on gear or clothing to the Cascades. The stricken bat seems to be a Western subspecies of little brown bat, Coleman says, so it probably wasn’t a bat from back East that somehow got translocated. Another possible, but unlikely, route for transmission could have been a shipping container from Asia or Europe that came into Seattle or Vancouver carrying an infected bat. State and federal researchers will be combing the area where the bat was found to try to locate other sick bats, and the public is also requested to notify the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife about any bats they find dead or see flying in the daytime — usually an indication of illness.
Someday, our children and grandchildren will wonder what bats were. We will say they were real. They will think bats are like unicorns.