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A fatal disease spread to Idaho bats. It could reach Utah bats next

a little brown bat hangs upside down from a ledge. It has a white fuzzy substance on its face.
Marvin Moriarty USFWS
The little brown bat is one species that has been severely impacted by white-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that grows on bats’ skin, producing a characteristic fuzzy, white nose. Kim Hersey, mammal conservation biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the disease can be fatal for many North American bats.

“It's a fungus that invades a lot of the membranes of the bat, makes the bat use up their fat stores more quickly, during winter, and that critical hibernation period. And ultimately, it can lead to dehydration, starvation, and death,” Hersey said.

White-nose syndrome was first detected in a cave in New York in 2006. Hersey said the fungus has since been spreading across the North American continent. So far, she said, this disease has not been detected in Utah.

“However, there is a cave in Idaho that's less than five miles from the border and a bridge in Wyoming that's hundreds of meters from the border where the fungus has been detected. So, although we haven't found it in any of our survey efforts, we do assume that the fungus has made it into the state at this point,” Hersey said.

The division surveys mines and caves in the winter, swabbing bats to test for the fungus. They also monitor bats in the early springtime as they begin to emerge from hibernation.

The little brown bat is a small bat that typically hibernates in large colonies of thousands of individuals, which can enable the spread of the fungus. So far, this species has been one of the most severely impacted by white-nose syndrome.

“We do have the little brown bat in Utah, … but our bats in the West behave differently. Rather than congregating in these large hibernacula, we think most of our bats actually hibernate in smaller cracks and crevices in rocks, in ones or twos,” Hersey said.

Because of this, Hersey said, biologists hope that the impacts of this disease on bat populations in Utah will be less severe.

Caroline Long is a science reporter at UPR. She is curious about the natural world and passionate about communicating her findings with others. As a PhD student in Biology at Utah State University, she spends most of her time in the lab or at the coyote facility, studying social behavior. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and hiking.