What Is Killing the Bats?

Can scientists stop white-nose syndrome, a new disease that is killing bats in catastrophic numbers?

In the worst animal epidemic in years, white-nose syndrome threatens to wipe out some bat species. (Lynda Richardson)
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“On my worst days, I feel like we’re working our tails off just to document an extinction,” says Reeder. “But somehow in really teasing apart all of this, in really understanding how they die and why, we may find something really important, something we didn’t predict, something that might help.”

This past winter, Brooke Slack and her crew conducted their annual survey of nearly 100 Kentucky caves. The early results were good: the bat she had euthanized in Mammoth Cave tested negative for white-nose syndrome, and the rest of their cave surveys came up clean. It looked as if Kentucky bats had, against the odds, made it through another winter fungus-free. But then white-nose syndrome showed up in southern Ohio, and Slack decided to recheck a few sites near the border, just to be sure.

On April 1, in a limestone cave in southwestern Kentucky, a researcher working with Slack found a little brown bat with white fuzz on its muzzle. They sent it to a laboratory, and a week later Slack got the news she’d anticipated, but dreaded, for the past three years: white-nose syndrome had finally arrived in Kentucky.

Now, Slack’s job is not only to slow the spread of white-nose syndrome, but also to learn as much as she can about the disease as it moves through her state—and her beloved bats. “There’s a sense of helplessness,” she admits. “But I don’t feel like we can say, ‘Well, we’ve got it, so we give up.’ We’ve got an obligation to move forward.”

Michelle Nijhuis has written about Atlantic puffins, Henry David Thoreau and last year’s Gulf oil spill for Smithsonian.


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