A deadly fungus continues to spread through bat populations across the northeast. White Nose Syndrome has been confirmed in two caves in Virginia and four caves in Pendleton County, West Virginia.
WNS first surfaced in caves near Albany, New York in 2006. Of the bats affected, 99 percent have died.
Experts say the Little Brown Bat populations have had the highest mortality rate, but Eastern Pipistrelles and Northern Long-Eared Bats have also been affected.
Rick Reynolds, Wildlife Diversity Biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says there is little known about WNS, so little that they can't even call it a disease.
"White Nose Syndrome is something kind of new to the United States and we've never seen it before here," says Reynolds. "It's something that we're not 100 percent certain whether the fungus is really the causative agent or just more of a secondary agent that is really causing death of these bats."
Experts say bats with WNS wake up more often during their winter hibernation, burning up their stored fat. They leave the caves too early and cannot find insects on which they feed. Eventually, many starve to death.
There are several theories as to how WNS is spread. One is simply from bat to bat. Another is that bats don't immediately die from WNS and may fly to another cave. The final theory comes back to humans, who may travel from cave to cave without properly disinfecting clothes and gear.
Caves with confirmed cases are considered "off limits" to recreational cavers to prevent further spread of the fungus. Cave owners hope that cavers heed the warning.
Reynolds says that less bats in the area mean more insects in the environment.
"Bats are number one nocturnal insect eaters out there and they consume quite a few insects and they consume a number of insects that are really pests to us, both around our home and with agriculture as well," says Reynolds.
Reynolds says that bat populations are crucial to keep pest populations in check.
"If we don't have bats out there, kind of keeping these populations in check, then we're going to have to control them with some other means, which is most likely going to be increased use of insecticides," says Reynolds. "That, of course is costly to farmers and that cost is mostly likely going to be passed on to the consumer."
Craig Stihler, Endangered Species Specialist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, says that WNS is now in areas that house endangered species of bats. The two endangered bats that are affected are Indiana Bats and Virginia Big Eared Bats.
Pendleton County has the largest population of Virginia Big Eared Bats in the world, and WNS is within five miles of one of their most densely populated caves.
Stihler also says the loss of bats not only changes the environment outside the cave, but inside it as well.
"There's also problems involved with some of the life in caves, because a lot of caves have a number of invertebrates and small animals that live in the cave and some are found just in one or two caves in the world," says Stihler. "And bats bring organic matter into the caves and that these ecosystems work on. So we could lose a lot of stuff inside the cave too, species that might be found in just one or two caves. Once we lose the bats we may lose them."
With little information at hand, experts are expecting the situation to worsen.
"What we can see, at least with the pattern of the past several years, is that we do expect it to keep moving further south and potentially heading west as well," says Reynolds. "And we're expecting basically the same consequences. This year, we've noticed the symptoms of White Nose in caves. Next year we're probably going to see dead bats showing up on the landscape."
The USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin is currently working on several experiments regarding the fungus. By summer, both Virginia and West Virginia officials are hoping to know how WNS is spread and if it's a primary or secondary illness.
Stihler says labs across the country are working to see if they can stop or slow down the spread of WNS, but a solution has not been found.
WNS is not known to directly affect humans.