Deadly bat fungus found in New Mexico caves. Here's what we know about white nose syndrome

White nose syndrome (WNS) was discovered – the first time confirmed in the state – via samples taken from two live bats and two found dead in caves in Lincoln and De Baca counties, which are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the agency said Monday.

Here’s what we know about white nose syndrome and the threat it poses to bats in New Mexico.

A deadly fungus threatening bat populations across the country has been discovered in two New Mexico caves.

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What is white nose syndrome?

White nose syndrome is caused by a pathogen known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), seeing spores attaching to a bat’s snout or wings, irritating and dehydrating them, causing them to awake during hibernation.

It appears as a white, powdery fungus that grows on the bats’ skin and rouses them from their slumber.

Once awake, the bats quickly exhaust fat stores needed to survive the winter and they usually starve to death as food is not as readily available during hibernation months.

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White nose syndrome has caused the death of millions of bats in North America since 2006, the BLM reported.

A study from Conservation Biology found white nose syndrome killed off 90% of exposed bat populations in three species in less than 10 years.

How was it found in New Mexico?

Evidence of white nose syndrome was first detected in New Mexico in 2021 but was unconfirmed for the two years since.

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Before that evidence was found, the syndrome was known present in 36 other states, including neighboring Texas.

The New Mexico confirmation came from a fungus sample taken from the two dead bats – one in Lincoln and the other in De Baca County.

Wing biopsies on the two live bats in Lincoln County showed microscopic lesions consistent with white nose syndrome.

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“We don’t yet know to what extent WNS will impact our New Mexico bat populations, but we will continue to support monitoring of bat populations and caves throughout New Mexico for the presence of WNS and Pd,” said James Stuart, non-game mammal specialist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

How does the fungus spread?

It primarily spreads when the spores are transferred by migratory bats into caves where they roost.

The spores, while not dangerous to people, can also be tracked into caves on clothing, shoes or other objects, and can spread when brought from an infected cave into one where the fungus is not present.

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First found in New York, the fungus has spread to 35 states and seven Canadian provinces. It’s been confirmed in 12 North American bat species.

There is no known cure for white nose syndrome, but scientists hope to find a way to control its spread.

“We will continue to coordinate with our state, federal, tribal and non-governmental partners to test and implement prevention measures such as restricted access to affected caves to minimize the spread of the disease in New Mexico,” said Marikay Ramsey, BLM New Mexico’s threatened and endangered species lead.

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How can cave visitors stop the spread?

To avoid spreading white nose syndrome, federal agencies called on cave visitors to decontaminate footwear before entering or touring a cave.

They also asked people to never touch bats, and report dead bats to the local agency.

Any caving gear used in a cave known to have white nose syndrome present should not be used in a cave that is free of the fungus.

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Canopies, umbrellas or any outdoor items should be checked to ensure no bats are roosting and could be transferred from cave to cave.

As seen in these little brown bats, the most commonly observed symptom of white-nose syndrome is the white fungal growth on the muzzle.
As seen in these little brown bats, the most commonly observed symptom of white-nose syndrome is the white fungal growth on the muzzle.

How is Carlsbad Caverns protecting its bats?

Federally managed caves like Carlsbad Caverns National Park also took steps recently to stem the spread of the fungus.

While no evidence of white nose syndrome was yet detected at the Caverns, it is home to about 400,000 Brazilian free-tail bats between May and October, that migrate to New Mexico and could spread the spores into the elaborate cave system.

To prevent this, park officials provide materials to decontaminate footwear during guided tours, and signs are posted throughout the park to warn visitors.

In 2021, the park installed biosecurity mats to remove spores from footwear as visitors exit the caverns.

The park also prohibited cave gear from white nose syndrome-endemic states, and infected counties.

Park staff continued to research existing bacteria and fungi on roosting bats, frequently testing for the presence of white nose syndrome.

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Deadly bat fungus confirmed in New Mexico caves. Here's what we know