A disease more lethal than covid-19 has nearly wiped out northern US long-eared bats

15 years after its was first discovered in a New York cave, white-nose syndrome has decimated the nation’s population of northern long-eared bats, reducing their numbers to almost nothing.

It evolved in the dark millions of years ago with bats in Eurasia, which, unlike bats in the United States, appear to be unaffected by the disease. After the fungus made its way across the Atlantic Ocean, possibly on the clothing or shoe of a cave explorer, North American bats appeared to have no natural defense. White-nose has infected more than half of the 47 bat species in the United States.

White-nose syndrome, a fungus known Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has been compared to HIV/AIDS for the way it burns through the skin and membrane of numerous bat species and kicks their immune systems into a frenzy, so much so that it attacks both healthy and unhealthy cells. The disease attacks bats as they hibernate in mines and caves. Thousands of the animals have been found dead or convulsing where they slept.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to reclassify the mammals from threatened to endangered after a review found that “white-nose syndrome is expected to affect 100%” of the animals by 2025. “White-nose syndrome has caused estimated declines of 97 to 100 % of affected … populations,” the review said.

“Bats are critical to healthy, functioning ecosystems and contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination,” the service said.