Deadly Syndrome That Gives Bats A White Mustache Is Spreading Across The US

Little brown bats hibernating in a New York cave. Most of the bats exhibit fungal growth on their muzzles. Nancy Heaslip/NY Dept of Environ. Conservation.

No, these bats are not donning novelty mustaches or using a Snapchat filter. They’re actually suffering from a deadly fungal phenomenon called white-nose syndrome (WNS), which has been popping up across more and more areas of the US over the past few years, killing millions.

Just this month, white-nose syndrome was confirmed in six Minnesota counties and the presence of the fungus has been detected in Texas for the first time.

The syndrome involves a white fungus that grows over bats' muzzles during hibernation.The culprit is Pseudogymnoascus destructans, a fungus that thrives in cold environments between 4-15°C (39-59 °F), ideal for a damp cave in winter. So far, scientific studies suggest that it is spread bat-to-bat or cave-to-bat and not through airborne transmission. However, no one is quite sure how it got to the US or why it's suddenly taken such a hold.

The syndrome was only first documented in the winter of 2006 to 2007 when it was found in a New York cave. Since then it has spread throughout eastern North America and is already estimated to have killed at least 5.7 million bats.

Little brown bat with fungus on its muzzle. Al Hicks/NY Dept of Environment Conservation.

It’s been documented in the Texan counties of Coryell, Freestone, Leon, Panola, San Saba, Shelby, and Wheeler, as well as the Minnesota counties of Becker, Dakota, Fillmore, Goodhue, and Washington.

While it's certainly a worry for environmentalists and conservationists, the situation in the balmy caves of Texas might not be as dire as you think.

“There is still hope for bats in Texas. The fungus thrives in colder climates and it remains to be seen if WNS will have the same serious impacts in Texas as it has in northern states," Jonah Evans, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department state mammologist, said in a statement.

“Additionally, 20 of the 32 species of bats in Texas do not regularly hibernate and we are hopeful they will not suffer significant population declines," he added. "We will continue working with cooperating landowners and researchers to implement the best management tools available to conserve these species.”

The spread of this syndrome is bad news for a number of reasons. First of all, bats are really helpful at feasting on a huge amount of bugs. In Texas alone, the agricultural value of insect control by bats is $1.4 billion each year. They also help out the with the pollination of plants and trees. Needless to say, this makes the dynamics of infection and transmission of white-nose syndrome a high priority for scientists.

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