White Nose Syndrome was first discovered in 2006 at four caves near Albany, NY, where thousands of bats, usually hibernating throughout the winter months, were found dead outside of the cave. More than half of these bats were observed with a white fungus near and around their noses. Within a year, during the winter of 2007 - 2008, WNS symptoms were confirmed in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. This winter, 2008 - 2009, WNS has been reported and/or confirmed in all of the aforementioned states, as well as in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.
The white-nose fungus itself doesn't appear to be killing bats, but seems to disturb their sleep so that they end their hibernation early. Bats that normally awake every two to three weeks are waking every three to four days. The fungus grows on bats and infects and destroys the local tissue. Infected bats have been observed flying during the day and during cold winter weather when the insects they feed upon are not available, causing the bats to literally starve to death. Often, these bats uncharacteristically move to cold parts of the hibernacula instead of their typically warmer roosting spots, causing them to use even more of their energy stores to stay warm. Currently, a WNS study is being conducted in Wisconsin, researching exactly how the fungus is affecting the bats and hopefully discovering some way to stop or at least impede its spread. Similar fungi have been reported on bats in Europe in the past, without the same devastating effects.
On March 26, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a voluntary moratorium on all caving activities. In response to this announcement and correspondence with WV Division of Natural Resources biologists, TMI has made the decision to remove caving from its programming until further notice. The caving activities will be replaced with educational curricula developed around karst topography in cave country, bats, and the WNS crisis. This curriculum can be paired with TMI’s newest citizen science initiative, Appalachian Bat Watch. Along with bat education at TMI, Bat Watch includes the installation of bat boxes, summer homes for bats, and the monitoring of the individual colonies that reside there. Bat Watch sites can then compare statistics with other sites throughout the state and monitor their own populations from year to year. These activities will work to promote understanding of the significance of bats in our ecosystem as well as the importance of species biodiversity in our natural world. This WNS information and more can be accessed on the web at www.fws.gov, www.caves.org, and through other various media outlets.