|A biologist prepares to swab a tri-colored bat during annual surveillance efforts. (Jena Donnell/ODWC)|
Bats are crucial to a healthy ecosystem. They play a key role in keeping insect populations including agricultural pests and mosquitos under control. In cave systems, they also provide nutrients for other cave life through their droppings.
"While disheartening, these results are not totally unexpected," said Melynda Hickman, wildlife diversity biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "This fungus has been documented in several counties just across the state line in Arkansas," she said. To date, this finding marks the westernmost case of the fungus in the United States. The fungus thrives in cold, humid environments and invades the skin of bats. White-nose syndrome disrupts the hibernating behavior of the bats, resulting in depletion of their fat stores. There are no known human health implications associated with white-nose syndrome.
The detection of the fungus resulted from participation in a national study led by researchers at the University of California-Santa Cruz with funding and support from the National Science Foundation. Surveillance efforts in Oklahoma are conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and include swabbing the muzzle and wings of hibernating bats along with the surrounding cave walls (substrate). "One positive aspect of the Delaware County finding is that although three bats have tested positive for the fungus, no dead bats were observed in the cave and there were no visible signs of the disease on any of the hibernating bats," Hickman said. "Furthermore, all of the substrate samples from this cave were negative for the fungus," she said. The Wildlife Department and its many partners are committed to continuing surveillance for this fungus in Oklahoma.
After a suspected case of white-nose syndrome in Oklahoma in 2010, the Wildlife Department created the Oklahoma Bat Coordinating Team, composed of at least 20 entities that have direct bat and cave management responsibilities. The team created a communication plan involving scientific cooperators, interested parties, stakeholders and user groups on bat and cave management, bat research and bat diseases in Oklahoma. The team has been active in creating the state's white-nose syndrome response plan and participating in disease surveillance work in multiple cave systems in Oklahoma.
For more information about white-nose syndrome, including the national response plan for managing the disease and ongoing research, visit the national white-nose syndrome website at whitenosesyndrome.org.