Wildlife Watch: Little brown bats beating white nose syndrome

Published: Feb. 16, 2021 at 5:01 PM EST
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MILTON, Vt. (WCAX) - White nose syndrome has killed countless bats in the northeastern United States. But now it appears at least one species of bat has found its way around the deadly fungus. Our Ike Bendavid has more on the little brown bats’ victory in this Wildlife Watch.

“We have seen the population not only stabilize but start to increase,” Alyssa Bennett said.

Bennett is a small mammals biologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife but her focus the last few years has been bats.

“Before white nose syndrome happened, bats were doing pretty well. We have six species that hibernate underground in the winter. I would say their populations were seeing either steady rates or even slight increase, including the little brown bat which was one of the most common species,” she said.

In 2008 and 2009, Bennett says the deadly fungal disease white nose syndrome hit Vermont.

“We were seeing hundreds of thousands of bats die underground and out in the landscape in the middle of the winter on a cold day like this, and that meant that some of our species declined by 90% or more just in a year or two,” Bennett said.

At the time, there were more questions than answers.

“Total uncertainty. Samples were being sent off to labs to understand what in the world was causing this. When they finally discovered that it was actually a fungus, it brought up questions because this fungus is able to affect a whole suite of species, a number of different bat species,” Bennett said.

But with over a decade of research and spending hours counting bats all around the state-- some good news. Bennett’s work and contribution to a Rutgers University study shows that the region’s little brown bat population is genetically adapting to white nose syndrome. Bennett collected samples from dead bats and bats that survived.

“What we discovered was really pretty exciting. So, if you imagine that the little brown bat was doing really well before white nose syndrome happened, possibly increasing in population. So, there is a lot of what we call genetic variability. Imagine the human population, we are all a little different and so when something big like white nose syndrome comes along and kills off a number of those individuals, there is a lot of that variation for natural selection to work on. And we appear to be seeing some really rapid natural selection right before our eyes, meaning that bats that did survive- that 10% that survived-- appear to have something special about them that’s allowing them to make it through this disease and hopefully pass that on to their young,” Bennett explained.

The scientist says although some of the other species affected by white nose syndrome may not be faring as well, like northern long-eared bat-- there is evidence the little brown bats’ population has started to stabilize.

“It is a sigh of relief because it’s hard to tell when we see something like a population stabilize if it’s only a temporary effect and whether that will last. And if there is a genetic basis, we found some evidence for here. It suggests that that trend will last and we see that long-term and possibly really a recovery of the population,” Bennett said.

And if you are worried about the little creatures flying around, Bennett points to some benefits.

“If you have bats in your yard, they can be contributing to eating those big insect populations that we are concerned about whether they are pests to people, pests to agriculture,” she said.

She says things like bat houses are a way to help bats.

“Bat houses are an alternative solution for them. So, if you have bats, it’s best that you contact us and so you can safely get them out of there without harming them and if you have somewhere you want to relocate them or just want to invite some bats, a bat house is a great way to do that,” Bennett said.

After years of research, some positive news for the little brown bat.

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