On a calm night in early April, 2016, a biologist is checking a bat detector near Juneau. The device hears and records the high-frequency calls bats make, and there are a lot of bats out this night. These are little brown bats, the most common and widespread bat in Alaska. They've been active for weeks, and emerged from hibernation in Southeast Alaska almost a month early this year.
Populations of little brown bats in the Eastern U.S. have been decimated over the past decade by a disease called white-nose syndrome, a fungus that grows on bats during the winter while they are hibernating. In some areas, 99 to 100 percent of the little brown bats have died, and biologists estimate more than six million bats in the east and Midwest have died from this disease.
In mid-march of 2016, a sick bat was found on a trail by a hiker in the forest about 30 miles east of Seattle. The bat died a few days later and tested positive for White Nose syndrome. This is the first case of the disease west of the Rockies; in fact, it's 1,300 miles west of the nearest cases in Minnesota and Eastern Nebraska. How this western bat acquired an eastern disease is unknown, and bat researchers are working hard to learn how and why the disease showed up in Western Washington, and if any other bats are carrying it.