USFWS announces grant to to capture healthy bats threatened by deadly fungus
By Dan McDermott
Warren County Report
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced Oct. 26 a $322,000 grant to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Zoo to fund the creation of a permanent secure colony of endangered Virginia big-eared bats at the zoo’s Front Royal, VA-based Conservation and Research Center.
The goal is to establish a healthy population of the bats while scientists work to stop a deadly fungus that threatens the entire species.
According to the USFWS, White-Nose syndrome was first documented near Albany, NY in Feb. 2006 when a caver photographed hibernating bats behaving erratically, many with a strange white substance on their muzzles. Some of the bats had died.
Dr. Jeremy Coleman, endangered species biologist and the USFWS National White-Nose Syndrome Coordinator, said that while it is common for mammals to develop fungal infections, it is very unusual for them to be fatal to a species. Coleman said that some bat species can live for up to 20 years in the wild and reproduce slowly so diseases can have a devastating effect on an already threatened species.
CRC staff veterinarian Luis Padilla said that scientists are still trying to determine if the fungus is indeed the pathogen that is causing the deaths of colonies of bats from New England to Virginia and West Virginia. “The fungus leads to their deaths indirectly. The problem is that the fungus irritates them and they are more active during times of normal hibernation. Since it is the winter, there are not the usual food sources available to them and they actually die of starvation,” he said. Padilla said that bats who survive the winter often awake in the spring with wings that have been partially eaten away by the fungus, effecting their flight and further impacting their chances of survival.
Padilla said that the captured bats will be screened for several diseases and healthy specimens will be housed in a building at the CRC that will allow them to be totally secure from other bats to prevent their becoming infected. He said that the goal is to protect a colony and their unique genes in the event the species is wiped out in the wild before a cause and cure for the fungus is found. Padilla also plans to establish protocols and capture techniques through the effort.
USFWS West VA Lead Biologist for VA Big-Eared Bats Barb Douglas said there are about 15,000 big-eared bats remaining in four segments in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. The largest segment is in West VA where the CRC bats will be captured. Other species are threatened by the fungus, including the little brown bat which numbers in the millions and is not considered endangered.
Bat infections have been reported in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.
The CRC award was one of 6 grants announced today totalling $800,000 from the service’s “Preventing Extinction” fund.