The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, a disease that since 2006 has been killing millions of bats as it makes a westward journey across the United States, has been detected in California, the Los Angeles Times reports. Scientists conducting surveillance found infected bats in the northern California town of Chester, situated between the Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Plumas National Forest.
The infected bats, which the surveillance team swabbed for the fungus in 2018 and 2019, represent the first cases in California, according to the White-Nose Syndrome Response Team of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They are Yuma bats (Myotis yumanensis) and little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus). The scientists have not yet observed bats with the disease itself in the state, however.
“We all thought we were going to have more time before it got this far west,” Winifred Frick, a University of California, Santa Cruz, biologist and chief scientist with Bat Conservation International, tells the LA Times. “We should all be very concerned about this heartbreaking discovery.”
White-nose syndrome, which gets its name from the hoary fluff that appears on the muzzles of sick bats, mostly affects the animals when they’re hibernating, causing them to wake up more frequently than usual, which uses up their fat reserves. The disease has been known to kill 90–100 percent of the bats at an infected site.
Cave explorers first spotted infected bats in Albany, New York, in 2006. Since then, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, Pseudogymnoascus destrucans (Pd), has been spreading, not only west but also north into Canada and south into the Carolinas. In March 2016, the disease showed up in Washington State, more than 1,000 miles farther west of where it had been spotted previously.
Bats can get the fungus from infected bats or through contact with the fungus in the environment. Fungal spores can persist on their own, and although the fungus does not infect humans, we could unwittingly transport it.
“The detection of Pd at Chester, even at these low levels, is troubling. It has now been detected in two successive years at two different sites,” says Alice Chung-MacCoubrey, who led the surveillance work at Chester and several other California sites, in a press release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Chung-MacCoubrey, the program manager for the National Park Service Klamath Inventory Monitoring Network, notes that in other parts of the country, the detection of low levels of Pd infection has been followed, one to four years later, by the disease itself.
“We know the losses of bats in the West will be less conspicuous than in the Northeast, where thousands of dead bats are spilling out of cold, dark caves and across the countryside,” Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, tells the LA Times. “Beyond that, however, there are a lot of critical unknowns. For instance, we don’t know exactly where bats in California hang out, or how the disease will ultimately manifest in the state’s warmer climate.”
Ashley P. Taylor is a New York–based freelance journalist. Find her on Twitter @crenshawseeds.