ELY, Nev. — A crew of five wildlife biologists wearing overalls, helmets and headlamps walked up the flanks of a juniper-studded mountain and climbed through stout steel bars to enter an abandoned mine that serves as a bat hibernaculum.
The swinging white light of the headlamps probed cracks and crevices in the walls of the long dark and narrow tunnel, as the team walked half a mile into the earth. When they spied a bat, they gently plucked the mouse-sized, chestnut brown mammal — Townsend’s long eared and Western small footed are the two most abundant species here — off the walls and deposited them in white cloth bags. A lone big brown bat was also gathered.
At one point a bat, disturbed by the scientific ruckus, fluttered by, the headlamps illuminating its membranous, negligee-thin wings.
During the survey in November, the bats were in their pre-hibernation phase, clinging to the gray rock wall with tiny grappling hook-like feet, gently breathing. They are in full hibernation mode now.
“They are biologically interesting,” said Catherine Haase, a postdoctoral researcher from Montana State University, as she affectionately handled a docile bat. “And they are really cute.”
Cute, interesting and facing a deeply uncertain future. This foray is part of a continentwide effort, from Canada to Oklahoma, to plumb mines and caves in hopes of figuring out how a virulent and rapidly spreading invasive fungal bat disease called white-nose syndrome, which is bearing down on the West, will behave when it hits the native populations here.
“White-nose syndrome represents one of the most consequential wildlife diseases of modern times,” wrote the authors of one recent paper published in mSphere, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology. Since 2006, “the disease has killed millions of bats and threatens several formerly abundant species with extirpation or extinction.”
White-nose syndrome, caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), is named for the fuzzy spots that appear on bats’ noses and wings.
Over the last decade state, federal and tribal agencies, along with nonprofit organizations, have been working around the country to try to get ahead of the disease and find a remedy to save the 47 species of bats in North America. So far the syndrome has defied the efforts.
After some 30 animals were gathered from the mine walls, the researchers hiked back out of the tunnel, disrobed and put their clothes into plastic bags to launder, and washed their helmets and other equipment with alcohol to avoid inadvertently spreading the fungus, should it be present.
Then they took the bags with their tiny quarry into a small, white windowless trailer stuffed with an animal MRI and a respirometer with a tangle of dozens of clear plastic tubes, to weigh and measure the bats in several different ways.
“This research will inform us which bats will be susceptible and which will be resistant, which will inform a conservation and intervention strategy,” said Sarah Olson, associate director of wildlife health for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Getting ahead of white-nose syndrome
The disease was discovered in a cave in Schoharie County outside of Albany, New York, in 2006, most likely introduced inadvertently from Eurasia. Since then, the pathogen has spread to at least 36 states and seven provinces of Canada, killing whole colonies of bats. Researchers have described finding cave floors littered with bat carcasses, sometimes many thousands in a single cave. So far more than 6 million bats have died in Canada and the United States.
Their loss could be consequential: Bats play a critical ecological role, pollinating plants in some places and controlling mosquitoes and other insects.
Having ravaged much of the East Coast and infecting an isolated, outlier region near Seattle, white-nose syndrome is heading deep into the West at the rate of about a state per year, and has appeared on the eastern edge of the region, killing bats in South Dakota, Oklahoma and eastern Wyoming.
That means in the next few years it could reach the thousands of caves and abandoned mines of the Rocky Mountains, the redoubts of overwintering bats. “Hibernating bats are most likely to be affected,” said Jonathan Reichard, assistant coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s program on white-nose syndrome.
But as decimating as the disease is, there are experts who think efforts to treat or even research the disease is wrongheaded, a waste of money that could do more harm than good.
The National Speleological Society, a group of cave explorers who also study and work for the conservation of caves, opposes these kinds of efforts, especially the blanket closing of caves to the public to keep the disease from spreading. We “deplore current actions,” they wrote in a letter to then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, last year.
Merlin Tuttle, a bat expert in Texas, also thinks these multiagency efforts to stem the disease are foolhardy and may harm the bats. “Disrupting them during hibernation is adding stress at a time they can least afford it,” he said.
“There’s no practical way at all to slow or stop this, to get rid of it in the wild; it’s already in thousands and thousands of roosts,” he said. “It should be allowed to run its course. We’re just wasting money when we try to find a cure. We should be spending our money on getting the maximum protection for the bats that have survived and helping them recover and rebuild populations.”