4 Investigates: Fungus threatens New Mexico bats with extinction
August 12, 2019 10:33 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - As dusk approaches in the woodlands near Santa Fe, a team of researchers sets up netting to trap bats in the Pecos National Historical Park.
“Hopefully we’ll intercept them as they’re coming in to take a drink,” said Ernest Valdez, Ph.D.
Valdez’s research team is looking for signs of a deadly disease that threatens mass extinctions of New Mexico’s bats.
The disease is called White Nose Syndrome and the fungus that causes it has already been detected in New Mexico.
“We’re watching species on the brink of extinction,” said Valdez.
The fungus that causes the disease infects bats during hibernation causing them to wake up, use their fat reserves too quickly and starve before springs arrives.
The deadly disease was first detected in upstate New York in 2006. Since then, the disease has spread to 33 states and wiped out millions of bats.
For years, many believed white nose syndrome was an east coast problem but then something happened. It jumped to the West Coast and last year, the fungus was found in New Mexico at the El Malpais National Monument.
“It’s spreading faster and faster to the west,” said Valdez.
The fungus that causes white nose syndrome has also been detected at Carlsbad Caverns.
Across New Mexico, researches are trying to determine if any bat populations have contracted the deadly disease.
“Unlike the east, we don’t know where these bats are roosting. We don’t know much about their natural history,” said Valdez. “The impacts of this disease are still unknown across North America.
While the nocturnal creatures are often misunderstood, experts maintain the animals are vital to both a healthy ecosystem and to New Mexico’s economy – specifically, through agriculture.
“We’re looking at bats that can have impact on corn crop pests, alfalfa pests and a variety of other crops that we have here in the state,” said Valdez.
The National Park Service estimates bats save farmers more than $3 billion nationally every year in the form of pest control.
Karl Cordova with the National Park Service says new research is key to helping manage parks, protect wildlife and “education we might want to do with our visitors to help make them aware of the threat to this native species.”
“These are species that have been treasured for generations,” said Cordova.
The fungus that causes the disease can be spread by bats flying from place to place but it can also be spread by people.
“I don’t want to be responsible for wiping out the bats,” said caver Dan Schulz shortly after exploring the lava tubes at El Malpais. He say he learned there are some ways you can help prevent the spread of white nose syndrome.
“We studies up on this before coming out here, so we made sure we had equipment that was all prepared in the recommended ways,” said Schulz.
In many cases, you are responsible for making sure your personal belongings are decontaminated. However, some national parks have installed decontamination sites to make sure you don’t track fungus in or out of case. It requires visitors to step into a solution of hydrogen peroxide which kills the fungus on contact. The decontamination process is required both before you enter a cave and once you’ve left one.
Experts say white nose syndrome threatens half the species of bats in New Mexico.
While researchers have not yet discovered any local bats infected with white nose syndrome, Valdez hopes his research will help shine a light on the impending problem.
“[Bats] have gotten a bad rap over the years,” said Valdez. “This is a time where awareness needs to be focused on bats and their health related to this white nose syndrome.”
Created: August 12, 2019 10:33 PM
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