Bats, mammals of the Chiroptera order, are essential to the stability and promotion of biodiversity in above ground and subterranean ecosystems. With over 1,400 species identified, bats make up about twenty-one percent of the planet’s mammal population. Although they are severely underappreciated in modern Western culture, bats are revered elsewhere in the world because of the many ways in which they benefit the planet. Understanding bats and their importance is crucial to their survival here and around the world as many face extinction because of disease and human abuse.
Importance of Bats
Bats are divided into megabat and microbat suborders based on characteristics such as size, diet and habitat location. Megabats, or Old World fruit bats, live in subtropical and tropical areas and typically consume fruit and nectar. Along with select types of microbats, they are important agents of seed and pollen dispersal. Bats contribute to the pollination of over 500 plant species worldwide, and play a vital role in spreading seeds that promote the regrowth of tropical forests.
White-Nose Syndrome is a devastating disease caused by the fungus pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd). Pd is not native to the United States but has found ideal growth conditions on this continent in caves and cave-like environments. The fungus, which manifests itself in the form of thin white spores on a bat’s nose, wings, or ears, was first documented in the States in 2006, when scientists found thousands of dead bats on the floor of a New York hibernaculum. Research to determine how these bats died began immediately, and White-Nose Syndrome was named and catalogued shortly thereafter.
White-Nose Syndrome in Arkansas and Buffalo National River
White-Nose Syndrome was first confirmed in Arkansas caves in 2013. Cave closures at Buffalo National River were instituted beginning in 2009 to slow the spread of the pathogen and protect habitats for endangered bat populations; a substantial ban on entry was implemented the following year in an effort to further safeguard caves from the transmission of this highly communicable disease. In 2015, the disease was identified within Buffalo National River boundaries at a cave in Newton County. Both the Tri-Colored and Northern Long-Eared Bat have witnessed a steep decline in numbers due to White-Nose Syndrome since that time. The existence of the pathogen has been confirmed in eleven Arkansas counties, and its presence is suspected in an additional four as of 2018. In addition to cave closures, the National Park Service partners with conservation organizations as well as state and other federal agencies to study and learn more about the disease in an effort to slow its spread.
The Search for a Cure
Successfully combatting disease requires the alteration or elimination of one or more components of the disease triangle, which are a susceptible host, a toxin or pathogen, and a favorable environment. In the case of White-Nose, the host is hibernating bats, the pathogen is the fungus Pd, and the favorable environment is the cold, damp caves also favored by many North American bat species for hibernacula. Because Pd affects different species in varying degrees of severity, and because the reason for this is not yet understood, it is difficult to find a vaccine or cure that is universal. Additionally, individual administration is required for most vaccines or medication, a logistically challenging process at best. Most bats that hibernate in caves prefer temperatures between 39 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, making environmental alteration tricky since Pd grows optimally between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Artificially raising the temperature within the cave high enough to kill off the fungus would render the environment unsuitable for many bat species. A dedicated team continues to work toward a viable cure, but because White-Nose is a new and not fully-understood disease, the search for a cure is a difficult and ongoing task.
How to Get Involved
While there are many dedicated experts laboring to save bats from the deadly threat of White-Nose Syndrome, what bats really need is help from ordinary people. But how can you help?
Last updated: October 1, 2018