North America's bats have been fighting a battle with a fungus for years leaving 90% of bats in some areas dead but until just recently, Colorado bats haven't had to fight. That's now changed.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife have confirmed that fungus on a bat at the Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site outside La Junta and found traces of the fungus in bat excrement at the Gateway Natural Area near Fort Collins.
There's a reason we've just been calling this "the fungus" so far in this article. The real name is a...
"It's a mouthful. It's Pseudogymnoascus Destructans," wildlife disease specialist with USGS Anne Ballmann said, laughing.
When attached to bats, the disease is simply called white-nose syndrome, or WNS for short. Because our Colorado bats are hunters, eating insects, they hibernate during the winter when the bug supply is much smaller. While sleeping, the fungus attaches to the hairless parts of their body, mostly their wing membranes and noses. The fungus is itchy and causes the bats to wake from their hibernation, expending unnecessary energy and essentially starving the animals. Now the clock is ticking, as wildlife officers prepare for the same thing they've seen in the majority of the U.S. so far; 2-3 years after finding the fungus, the bat populations start to drop.
"If we lose them, we may find that they were much more significant than we thought they were," Species Conservation Coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife Tina Jackson said.
"As someone who gets bit by a lot of mosquitoes and doesn't like Miller moths in my house, bats help with that sort of thing."
Jackson said reports have shown bats account for billions of dollars worth of agricultural pesticides each year (that's billion with a B). It's not clear just how much bug-clearing bats do for Colorado specifically, but zoologists believe there will be a drastic difference if we lose our bats.
"Buggy," Jeremy Siemers, a Zoologist with Colorado Natural Heritage Program at CSU noted as the most obvious change. "There's going to be a lot more bugs."
Siemers was the one who collected the positive guano sample from the Fort Collins location. He said he was expecting the fungus would pop up eventually, but now we're having to start thinking about what this means for our Colorado landscape.
"Years ago, if you would have asked what's the most common mammal (in Colorado,) it would be a little brown bat. But as this disease moves in, this could potentially make that not true anymore," Siemers said.
Still, he has hope the situation will be different for Colorado than other states who've been hit hard.
"I think there's hope still that we can maybe find a way out of this just with the different ecology of the bat species within Colorado."
There are already efforts to try and curb the effect of WNS but with varied success. Vaccines and anti-fungal sprays are effective but because bats move around and mix and mingle, they run the chance of re-infecting and spreading. Ballmann said once a disease is a part of a wildlife population, it's basically something you have to try to treat, not cure together.
"It can be very tricky and challenging to find an effective means to treat a large free-ranging population up against some sort of fungus infection," Ballmann said. "You would have to not only treat individual animals, but you would have to then figure out some sort of good environmental treatment to prevent that re-exposure."
There has been some success with bat populations in European and Asian bat populations who have dealt with the fungus for decades and simply adapted to the fungus, but Ballmann said that could take multiple cycles of bat generations, meanwhile, huge chunks of the population die off, creating a bottleneck effect for the species that are most susceptible.
"It's going to take a long time for them to kind of climb back to pre-white nose levels and their population," Ballmann said.
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