Just as scientists are getting to know Alaska's bats, a mortal threat is looming closer over the mysterious flying mammals.
White-nose syndrome, a fungus-related disease that has spread westward after wiping out millions of bats in the U.S. Northeast and in eastern Canada, is now in Washington state – and could jump to Alaska, biologists fear.
The spread of white-nose syndrome to the West Coast, over the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, is much faster than expected
"This is a game-changer," said Link Olson, curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. "Once it's on the West Coast, there are really no significant barriers preventing it from coming up from Washington."
Up to now, the westernmost documentation of the disease was in the Midwest, meaning it has made a 1,300-mile leap across the continent, said Karen Blejwas, a wildlife biologist and bat specialist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"It's really unexpected, because this is by far the largest jump the disease has ever made since it was discovered in 2006," she said.
Blejwas said Fish and Game had already been working with other government agencies and organizations to try to prepare for the spread of the disease into Alaska. Now that work is accelerated, she said.
Officials will be asking the public "to keep an eye out for bad bats on the landscape," she said.
White-nose syndrome features a growth of white fungus on hibernating bats' faces that invades tissue, ultimately leading to starvation and death, according to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fact sheet. In disease-impacted sites in eastern North America, 90 percent to 100 percent of hibernating bats have died, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which assembled a multiagency response team to address what is now considered a wildlife emergency.
The species Myotis lucifugus, commonly known as little brown bat, have been particularly vulnerable to white-nose syndrome elsewhere in the country. The Washington state white-nose-syndrome case that was reported by government officials on Thursday involved a sickened little brown bat discovered by hikers about 30 miles east of Seattle. The bat died two days after it was found, officials siad.
Little brown bats are the most common in Alaska, which is now known to be home to seven species. Little brown bats are also the only bat species known to live in Interior Alaska, Blejwas said.
That means a spread into Alaska could be devastating to the state's whole population. "It doesn't bode well," Olson said.
The timing of the Washington outbreak is also bad for science. Little is yet known about Alaska's bats. Scientists are still working, with the help of citizen volunteers, on gathering enough data to create a good baseline understanding about the populations, Blejwas said.
Much of what is known about Alaska's bats is relatively new information. That includes the discovery just a few years ago by Olson, Blejwas and others of Alaska's seventh bat species, the Yuma bat, an identification made through careful examination of museum specimens.
The size of the population is still a mystery, as Alaska bats do not congregate in large groups in caves the way East Coast bats do, Blejwas said.
Also a mystery is exactly what Alaska's bats do and where they go in winter, Olson said. It is still unclear where they hibernate, or if they move south to winter hibernation spots, he said.
The bats' origin in more northern parts of Alaska is another mystery, he said. "One of the burning questions is: Did we ever have bats in Interior Alaska before humans arrived and started building heated structures?" he said.
The Alaska Bat Monitoring Program was launched by Fish and Game in 2004. An acoustic monitoring program was started in about 2011 in Southeast Alaska, known to hold a relatively diverse bat population, Blejwas said.
That program has yielded some useful results, she said. "We have a much better understanding of what bats we have and where," she said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing