What is white-nose syndrome in bats?

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What is white-nose syndrome in bats? – Minti F., age 13, Boston, Massachusetts

Scientists count bats in the winter to make sure their populations are doing okay. They look in caves and abandoned mines where bats hibernate when it is too cold to hunt for insects to eat.

About 10 years ago, during their annual winter bat counts, scientists noticed that bats in caves in New York state were dying. The bats that were still alive had a white fuzzy growth on their muzzles and wings. Scientists didn’t know what it was and named it white-nose syndrome.

Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome. Alan Hicks, CC BY-ND

Now we know a lot more about white-nose syndrome, a disease that kills bats when they hibernate. I am a scientist who studies bats to learn more about how to protect them.

A fungus that infects hibernating bats

The white-nose syndrome disease is caused by a fungus that grows on bats’ skin when they are trying to survive winter by hibernating in cold, dark subterranean habitats like mines and caves. Bats are mammals like you. But unlike people, they have a special ability to “go cold” to save energy when there isn’t anything to eat. This is called torpor.

Hibernating tri-colored bat. Winifred Frick, CC BY-ND

The fungus that causes this disease can live on the walls of caves and mines. It grows best in cold temperatures and infects bats when their immune system, which fights infection, isn’t as active.

Bats have skin on their wings, muzzles and a membrane that connects between their tail and hind legs. The fungus eats into those skin tissues, causing lesions. The infection causes the bats to wake up from their energy-saving torpor. Bats can’t survive for long in the middle of winter without food, and they starve to death.

Bats started dying by the thousands in the winter of 2006-2007, sounding the alarm that something was seriously wrong. Some bat species are more vulnerable to the disease, like the northern long-eared bat, the little brown bat and the tri-colored bat.

We estimate that millions of bats across North America have died as the fungus has spread. Bats need our help. In the past 10 years, many wildlife biologists have worked hard to help bats survive. There are no easy solutions, but a lot of scientific research is underway to discover how we can protect bats.

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