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Saving the Northern Long-Eared Bat From Extinction

White-nose Syndrome (WNS) has stricken the Northern Long-Eared Bat of Maine and state and federal regulators are taking steps to protect the bats and restore the population.  At present, the bats are proposed to be listed as threatened or endangered on both the state and federal level.  Decisions are pending this spring.

What is White-Nose Syndrome?

The recently identified White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) affects bats who hibernate in colonies during the winter, and is caused by a fungus called Geomyces destructans. The name refers to how infected bats develop a white fungus on their muzzles.

WNS was first identified in New York and it has spread throughout the northeast US, through Maine, and even into Canada. WNS has killed more than a million bats in the northeastern states. In many areas where the long-eared bats hibernate, ninety to one hundred percent of them have perished from WNS.

While the fungus that causes WNS is not well understood, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife believes that spores attached to humans may have brought the disease to uninfected areas. They have requested that climbers and spelunkers curtail their activities.


Meet the Northern Long-Eared Bat

Because these bats have become so rare, few in Maine know what they look like or where they can be found. Their bodies are about 3 to 3.7 inches long, with a wingspan of 9 to 10 inches. Their fur is usually medium or dark brown on the back, and tawny or pale-brown on the underside.

While they may use other habitats where they are less susceptible to WNS, most northern long-eared bats hibernate in large caves or mines during the winter. They prefer those with big passageways and entrances, high humidity, and no air currents. In the summer they venture out to find food and mate, seeking shelter in hollow trees and logs or rock crevices, and sometimes in barns and sheds.

What’s Next for These Bats

Initial contamination of caves in NY may have been from cavers who brought fungi from Europe but most of the spread has probably been bat to bat exposure either during summer or during winter in infected caves.

Humans have not yet found a way to fix the damage, or even necessarily prevent the further spread of WNS. Listing the bats as endangered or threatened will not solve the problem but highlights the seriousness of the situation and prods us to look for solutions.