Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers have seen no sign of the deadly white-nose syndrome in Colorado’s bat populations, but say monitoring and help from the public will still be needed in 2012.
“Many bat populations are found in caves and mines on private land,” explained Tina Jackson, who heads the bat conservation work of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “As we did last year, we’d like the public to let us know if they find dead bats this winter.”
Bats typically hibernate during Colorado’s cold winter months, but bats affected by white-nose syndrome may move toward cave entrances or leave hibernation sites entirely. Bats that die near cave entrances or are found outside of caves during the winter months are also of interest to researchers and wildlife managers.
“We’re asking anyone who sees unusual bat activity or finds dead bats this winter to contact us so that we can test to determine what’s going on,” Jackson explained.
In addition, wildlife researchers are also conducting winter and spring surveys to assess bat populations and sample for disease.
White-nose syndrome is named for the white, powder-like material seen on the nose, ears and wings of infected bats. Without any natural protections, white-nose syndrome can wipe out 95 percent of a bat colony in a couple of years. It has been predicted that white-nose syndrome could eliminate little brown bats in the northeastern U.S. within 16 years.
White-nose syndrome has not been found in Colorado. Since being first documented in 2007 in a cave in New York, white-nose syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that white-nose syndrome has resulted in the death of up to 6.7 million bats in North America. In 2010, a bat found in a cave in northwestern Oklahoma, less than 200 miles from the Colorado border tested positive for the fungus.
Scientists are still learning about white-nose syndrome, which strikes bats during hibernation, when bat immune systems effectively shut down, allowing the fungus to become established. Bats in colonies infected with white-nose syndrome arouse from hibernation more frequently than uninfected populations, possibly because of irritation, hunger or thirst. The increased number of arousals from hibernation quickly depletes the bat’s fat reserves and results in starvation. The fungus also causes significant damage to the wings, affecting the health of the bat and perhaps compromising its ability to fly and capture insects.
Colorado is home to at least 18 species of bats, 13 of which are believed to hibernate in the state. Bats that migrate to warmer climates for the winter are not believed to be affected by white-nose syndrome. All the bat species found in Colorado are insect eaters, in some cases eating thousands of insects a night. This diet of night-flying insects makes bats important for the control of agricultural and human pests. Bats are also important to the underground environments they roost in, bringing energy into these mostly closed systems in the form of guano.
The public is asked to not disturb hibernating bats and to respect cave closures. While the public is asked to avoid going near bat caves and abandoned mines, people are being asked to report if they see any signs of white-nose syndrome. Signs include:
• Bats moving to the openings of the hibernation site during the winter.
• Bats leaving hibernation sites in the winter, especially on cold days.
• Bats with a white powder-like material on their nose, ears or wings.
• Dead bats.
Members of the public who see any active or dead bats this winter are asked to report that information to a special phone line, (303) 291-7771, or e-mail address, Wildlife.Batline@state.co.us. Because bats also can be affected by other health problems, including rabies, people should use precautions such as disposable gloves or an inverted plastic bag when handling bat carcasses. The public is also advised to not handle live bats that appear to be ill.
For more information on white-nose syndrome, visit http://wildlife.state.co.us/Research/WildlifeHealth/WNS/.