Saturday I was able to attend the early bird program at the Nature Conservancy's Annual Meeting here in Newcomb. I wanted to go because it was a presentation by Al Hicks, the DEC biologist who is heading up the White-nose Syndrome studies here in NY.
The program was enlightening (although much of it I already knew), but likewise depressing. Some of the photos he shared with us I hadn't seen before, especially one of an eastern pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) with the white fungus completely covering its face, like a death mask. The images of bat bodies, several deep, on the floors of caves was heart-breaking. He had before and after shots of the same stretch of cave wall, the former covered with bats, the latter bat-free (well, I believe there were actually two bats left). Even if you are not a bat enthusiast, the impact of these photos was devastating.
I took pages of notes, but here's what it boils down to:
1. They are pretty sure now (not positive yet, but pretty sure) that the fungus is the cause, not merely a symptom.
2. When the outbreak first occurred and they sent emails around the world, looking for clues. Some folks in Europe (Hungary, Switzerland, Netherlands, Romania) reported they had seen white fungus on the snouts of bats there, but they weren't concerned. It turns out that Europe has many fewer bats than we have here in N. America. Speculation now is whether this fungus wiped out bat species in Europe years ago (before studying bats and recording populations was considered important) without anyone knowing it.
3. The fungus from Europe is morphologically the same as the WNS fungus, and so far the genetics suggest is is the same. It is possible that this fungus is an alien invasive from Europe.
4. The cumulative decline of NY's little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) populations in the last 2+ years is about 95%.
5. There is no evidence of resistance.
6. NYS DEC has been most concerned about the status of Indiana Bats (Myotis sodalis), which are a Federally endangered species; NYS is home to a significant winter population (7th largest in the world). What the scientists know is that Indianas and little browns share winter hibernacula and often cluster together. But, in adjoining clusters the little browns can have over 50% affected with the fungus, while the Indians right next to them have fewer than 5% affected. Somehow Indianas seem to be a bit more resistant. Also, it seems Indianas tend to prefer caves that have a lower humidity; caves with lower humidity have less of the fungus, and therefore bats in these caves are suffering a significantly smaller mortality rate.
7. During the winter, the bats' immune systems are not functioning. No one knows if this is normal during hibernation or if it is another symptom of WNS. When spring comes, the immune systems kicks into action and it encapsulates the fungus in a pustule. If this is on the wing (or tail) membrane, the pustule "burns through" the membrane, leaving a hole. This in turn impacts the bat's ability to fly and forage, and likewise decreases its reproductive success.
8. If the trend continues (the spread of the fungus and its associated wake of death), we can expect WNS to be in most of eastern North America in the next few years. It's possible our cave bats can be wiped out within ten years. This is significant!!!
9. The bats affected: little browns, Indianas, small-footeds (Myotix leibii), eastern pipistrelles (Pipistrellus subflavus), northern long-earred (Myotis septentrionalis), and big browns (Eptesicus fuscus). We don't know yet if the solitary tree-dwelling bats, which are migratory, are affected: red bats (Lasiurus borealis), hoary bats (Lasiurus cinereus), and silver-haired bats (Lasionycteris noctivagans). So far, of the bats known to be affected, big browns seem to be faring the best.
Al's big take-home message, however, was that as devastating as this is, it is a drop in the bucket when compared to global warming. He said "forget the bats - worry about global warming." Current studies are showing that the "worst case" scenarios that Al Gore talked about in his book and movie are not even close to what is really happening. Global climate change is happening as a faster rate than expected/predicted. Something must be done now or it will be too late; it's not a problem we can put off any longer. He said "write to your congressmen, write to your senators..."; do whatever you can to make global warming the priority in your life, because if we don't change the way we do things, the catastrophic results could be worse than we ever imagined. It's not just about humans. Everything on this planet is tied together...we have to step back from our petty problems and think of the big picture. Should the entire planet, with is millions of lifeforms, pay the ultimate price for one species' arrogance?