HBO

Millions of bats have died because of a fungal disease that no one knows how to stop

Millions of animals dead, a disease devastating entire populations in multiple states, and no cure or treatment in sight: That’s the reality of white nose syndrome, a disease that has killed over 5 million bats in the U.S. in the past decade. Still, scientists aren’t giving up.

Biologists Tim Carter and Marteen Vonhof have been investigating ways to control white nose syndrome in the wild. I met up with them near Houghton, Michigan, in early April to see how things were going. At the time, they were gathering samples from bats — both alive and dead — that had been hibernating in a mine they’d sealed off for the winter. The scientists hoped that the resulting data would tell them if a compound applied on half the bats in the fall had helped the animals fight off the disease. For the researchers, the stakes are high.  

“We’re seeing massive declines, mortality rates of over 80 percent in some cases and as high as 90 to 95 percent of the population is dying as a result of this disease,” said Carter, a wildlife biologist at Ball State University.

Watch VICE News Tonight’s report on white nose syndrome:

First discovered in 2007 in New York, white nose syndrome has spread to 31 states, most of them in the Northeast, in just 10 years. The disease got its name because some bats develop a white, fuzzy growth on their noses. But the most common sign of the disease is lesions on the wings and tails.

That’s not what kills bats, though. The real issue is that the disease alters the bats’ behaviors. Instead of spending the winter in hibernation, infected bats wake up and fly around. Because of this, they end up expending a lot more energy than they normally would, at a time when there’s no food available to sustain them. Infected bats become emaciated — and eventually die from starvation.

White nose syndrome isn’t just bad for bats; it’s also a huge problem for the U.S. economy. Bats eat a lot of insects, which means they’re crucial for pest control. Because of this, these small mammals save American farmers an estimated $3.7 billion in crop damages every year. Without them, farmers could stand to lose a ton of money. And given current bat declines, even if scientists find a solution now, populations will take a very long time to recover. “Right now we’re at about 10 years of white nose losses,” Carter said. “If we could wave a magic wand today and just get rid of white nose, it would be more than a thousand years before bats can get back to where they were just 10 years ago.”

At the end of April, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that white nose syndrome had been found for the first time in Oklahoma. A spokesperson for U.S. Fish and Wildlife told VICE News that this is yet another sign that the disease is spreading west.

The video segment originally aired April 27, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

M-F 7:30PM HBO