As the weather gets colder bats will soon head into hibernation and scientists in Iowa are watching to see whether a devastating fungus that has already been discovered once in the state, will infect cave-dwelling bats. Experts say White Nose Syndrome has killed about six million bats since 2006. Richard Geboy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, describes the impact of the disease.

“What the fungus is actually doing is it’s growing into the tissue of the bat, so it’s growing into the wing,” according to Geboy. Once the fungus gets into the bat’s wing, it causes an irritation that make the bats to come out of winter hibernation and look for the insects that provide their food. “And at the at time, obviously as we all know — especially in Iowa and more the northern states, that abundance of insects are not there,” Geboy says.

The bats burn up a bunch of energy searching for the food that is not there and they starve to death. Bats can spread the disease as they move from cave to cave. So far, it’s been found in more than 20 states and parts of Canada. In Iowa, the fungus was found on a single bat last winter — but no sick bats have been reported yet. The spread is worrying to researchers because bats play an important role in the environment – pollinating flowers and eating pests that destroy crops and annoy humans.

Julie Blanchong is an associate professor in ISU’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. “There’s not much we can do to manage that because there’s no treatment, there’s no vaccine, there’s nothing that’s logistically reasonable to manage bat spread at this point,” Blanchong says.

While humans can’t get infected, they can spread the white nose fungus on their shoes and clothing. So officials are restricting access to some caves, and encouraging visitors to make sure they wear different clothes if they move between caves. Scientists are also trying to learn more about bats – which species live where, and in what numbers.

To gather data, Blanchong and her colleagues have been driving around the Iowa countryside late at night, using special equipment to record bat calls that can’t be heard by the human ear. “We’re looking to record calls where they’re sending out signals to say ‘where’s the food’. And those particular types of calls are the best calls to actually identify who it is that’s,” Blanchong explains. The information will help scientists know where to focus their efforts, and keep track of what’s happening to the bats.

The drives — known as transects — aren’t the only way of keeping tabs on bats. Daryl Howell of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says hibernating bats will continue to be tested for traces of White Nose Syndrome by slipping into caves in eastern Iowa each winter, and rubbing a small swab dipped in sterile water on the bats’ wings and muzzles.

“We swab them in place, so that they are hanging there,” Howell says. He says they try to take the samples before the bats completely wake up and start stirring. Howell says there’s a good chance the fungus will spread further in Iowa, killing off untold numbers of bats. If so, he says his hope is that enough will survive to repopulate after the worst of the disease is past.