Article by: Jane Marsh, Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co
The adult little brown bat population in Pennsylvania is declining because of a disease called White-nose syndrome. Experts are on the case, attempting to find a treatment to save the few remaining bats in the state. What causes such a mass illness outbreak in a concentrated area, and how do humans typically respond to such instances with affected species worldwide?
The Impact of Invasive Species
An invasive fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans is the cause of White-nose syndrome. Presently, there is no cure — only fungus control. Despite the name, the fungus spreads to more areas, including the wings and ears. It harms them by causing surface wounds all over the body as the fungus feeds on skin cells. Recent studies explore how this impacts adaptation and what genetic qualities make some more susceptible or resistant to WNS.
The fungus began flourishing in environments the little brown bat uses for hibernation. The Pennsylvania Game Commission caught word of the epidemic by excavating and treating the little brown bat’s most common hibernacula. Despite treatment with an FDA-approved polyethylene glycol spray, bats from other parts of the state bring fungi from other regions.
The state has been spraying down these sites for years, chipping away at the fungi’s damage. Pennsylvanian little brown bats are now endangered because of it.
The Result of Losing American Bats
Bats’ nocturnal natures usually keep them out of public view. The fact does not diminish the essential role they play in agriculture. The United States Geological Survey states bats save the nation around $3.7 billion in pest control yearly. The natural order becomes disrupted. Not only do the pests survive and impact farms but the species that feed on bats also have a decreased food source.
The worst-case scenario is it could cause a ripple effect, damaging the resilience of other species and the habitats they nourish.
Every creature has a role in nature, and invasive species upset the balance. The domino effect catalyzes the other impacts of climate change, such as oceans rising and natural disasters worsening. It is challenging to see how minute instances like a localized bat species impacts the greater picture. However, climate change is comprised of smaller catalysts like the endangerment of the little brown bat.
The Importance of Treatment for Outbreaks
The case study proves why containing the invasive species obtained priority over finding a vaccine — treatment could not exist without first reigning in on the source. The story is a look into how humanity evolved in fighting against outbreaks with more tact and collaboration. Preemptive action before research and development on medicine is required for long-term success. Otherwise, the fungus has a comeback.
Once several years of containment occurred, decreasing the number of exposed bats, vaccination trials began with varying success rates. However, immunized bats were more likely to be free of White-nose syndrome during initial attempts. Experts suggest making the vaccine a transferable jelly. Like how bats travel with the fungus, they can travel with a jelly-like immunization that is transferable through bathing.
Several years of dedication paid off. One hibernaculum saw a 65% reduction in bats obtaining the disease. The infected bats were less severely affected by the fungus than before. It proves how well weakening the source works to protect the species. The test was on a human-made structure to ensure it would not impact other species. Because of its success, the spray will treat other hibernation areas to save even more bats.
Saving Pennsylvania’s Little Brown Bat
There is rarely an immediate solution for epidemics tackling specific species. The situation with the little brown bats reminds Pennsylvania locals — and the world — how much invasive species permeate and how one species’ behaviors impact an entire ecosystem. One minute, there are bats not eating insects — the following, Pennsylvanian farmers are begging for pest relief and improved crop yields.