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Captive colony of Virginia big-eared bats providing valuable lessons in battle against deadly white-nose syndrome

Virginia big-eared bats, Smithsonian National Zoological Park

Scientists examine a colony of Virginia big-eared bats in a cave. (Click to enlarge)

In recent years, an estimated 1 million wild bats have died in the Northeastern United States from white-nose syndrome, a disease characterized by a white cold-loving fungus that invades the skin of the bat, mainly through the muzzle, ears and wings. One consequence of this disease is that the bats lose their fat reserves and ultimately starve.The fungus is now present in caves in West Virginia that support the largest hibernating populations of Virginia big-eared bats in the world. It has spread to 10 states, from New Hampshire to Tennessee, and more endangered bat species are now within its range.

In November 2009, the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park accepted 40 endangered Virginia big-eared bats (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus) at its Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., to establish a security population of these animals and scientifically develop husbandry practices.The possible extinction of this endangered subspecies, and the loss of its essential role in local ecosystems, were the reasons the National Zoo accepted such a high-risk project. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funded this and other research projects focused on white-nose syndrome and bat survival. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has also assisted with the project.

Efforts to keep the bats alive have proved challenging and since November the majority have died. But the lessons Zoo scientists are learning will help save these, and other, insectivorous bats in the future.

Eleven bats remain in the National Zoo’s colony. The initial challenge the team faced was how to feed the animals. Virginia big-eared bats, which are a subspecies of the Townsend’s big-eared bat (Corynorhinuss townsendii), eat while flying. While some in the security colony successfully learned to eat meal worms out of pans, others did not, sometimes resulting in their deaths. Some of the bats that ate mealworms did not adequately groom themselves, which resulted in dermatitis (inflammation of the skin). Others developed foot, toe and digit problems that, in part, may have caused deadly bacterial infections that spread rapidly through their blood despite treatments with antibiotics and fluids.

A Virginia big-eared bat hangs from the roof of a cave, Smithsonian National Zoological Park

A Virginia big-eared bat hangs from the roof of a cave. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photos)

“Virginia big-eared bats face an imminent threat from white-nose syndrome,” says Jeremy Coleman, the national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Developing a successful captive breeding program is a reasonable precautionary step to ensure the long-term viability of the subspecies. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is the only organization to accept the challenge of this risky, groundbreaking, but essential endeavor.”

Because it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain insect-eating bats in captivity, extensive planning and preparations went into designing this project. The National Zoo formed a bat care team made up of biologists, husbandry and animal care specialists, veterinarians and a nutritionist who relied on protocols developed by the Virginia Big-Eared Bat Group convened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The team worked around the clock to care for, and learn from, the colony.

“We expected some of the feeding challenges,” explains David Wildt, head of the National Zoo’s Species Survival Center. “But we were surprised to learn how sensitive this particular subspecies of bat is. Even the smallest change in environment or husbandry practices seemed to affect the ability of the bats to adapt to their new environment.”


A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome.

National Zoo researchers found that bats learned to eat from the bowl faster when confined in a small enclosure for a few hours. In the future, scientists can use this information to better provide for the needs of the subspecies in captivity. The bat team also has learned a great deal about enclosures and the medical care required for insectivorous bats in captivity.

“Faced with the possibility of white-nose syndrome eliminating the entire subspecies, we took decisive action to attempt to protect the bats,” Coleman says. “Together with the Zoo, we will examine this project, take what we have learned and be ready to apply it to captive propagation projects in the future.”

White-nose syndrome continues to devastate wild bat colonies. To learn more about white-nose syndrome on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s white-nose syndrome page.


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  • John Barrat

    Comments on this article are now closed.

  • Nucharin Songsasen, reproductive biologist, National Zoo

    I agree with Amanda’s comment that “Bats are individuals, and while some may learn quickly, others may not. It is common knowledge among bat care specialists that bats who do not learn to self feed on mealworms must be hand fed twice daily for the remainder of their lives in captivity.” The bat expert we hired as a consultant to kick-start the project told us that VBEB would adapt to feed on mealworms within five days. She advised us to hand feed the bats twice a day for those five days and then to dramatically reduce that practice (she called it the “tough love” approach), even if the bats were not self feeding yet. We observed, however, that the bats that did not self feed continued to lose weight and become dehydrated. Because of this, we had to go against the consultant’s advice and continued to feed the bats twice a day. Any action other than adjusting to the bats’ health needs would have been negligent.

    In response to the comment that an individual bat can be hand fed by a caretaker in three-to-five minutes, I would like to point out that it takes at least 20 minutes for one bat to feed, whether that’s by hand feeding or by placing them in the pan to feed on their own. Even the bats that take worms readily from the hand or that pick up their own worm spend one minute, on average, to chew a single worm. Each bat consumed 10 to 12 worms per feeding, which means this took at least 10 to 12 minutes per feeding, and longer for the bats that didn’t take mealworms readily. After the feeding, the staff offered water and groomed each bat to make sure the food residue did not stick to their face or fur.

  • Dorothy

    If anyone is in doubt about the claims made against the actions of the Smithsonian (and questions why they are still not getting the bats the rehabilitation they require), why not read the supporting evidence. Go to and look in the ‘Breaking News’ section on the home page (March 9, 2010 article). Mistakes were made. It is time to correct them. The only reason an agency would not act responsibly to save the remaining animals is because of egos or cover-ups. The Smithsonian needs to act immediately to save suffering animals and they certainly would gain a lot more respect.

  • Pat B

    This issue goes far beyond the bats’ failure to self-feed. As per the above article, some bats had mealworm residue on their chins which progressed to dermatitis. Others had foot problems which resulted in systemic bacterial infections. This is totally unacceptable and speaks to inattentive caregivers, sub-standard husbandry protocols, and inappropriate caging facilities.

  • Dorothy

    To Mr. Sowders:

    Talk about a coordinated agenda. I have not conversed with anyone but I can read. You state, “Kudos to the Smithsonian for taking the chance, and shame on all of the rehabbers (, – your affiliations show when you scroll over your posted name!) who seem very quick to be critical but offer nothing of use, and seem to have a coordinated agenda to attack within hours of this news.” Mr. Sowders it appears you are supporting an organization (the Smithsonian) that has a 75% failure rate with an endangered species. You can call licensed, skilled rehabilitators and specialists all the names you want but you will never see that percentage of failure with them – ever. Expertise is not self-proclaimed; it is documented with credentials, tested and licensed. Contrary to your beliefs, rehabilitators train for years. It is not guess work that is used; it is learned knowledge that is applied. By condemning trained, licensed individuals who work the most with a particular species, you are condemning some very learned individuals who seek out the skill set of the rehabilitator (people like veterinarians, vet techs, biologists, zoologists, etc.) because those are the people who train with rehabbers because they cannot obtain that level of training anywhere else. Focus on the issue at hand and stop pointing fingers where they do not belong. Animals are dying because the Smithsonian refuses to utilize standard rehabilitation care procedures and they have not sought out the advice from any facility skilled in sustaining propagation colonies. Note: For you information, every 6 year old knows when you scroll over a name the properties appear. No one has to hide here but it appears a lot of folks are fighting to have their tax dollars directed towards saving a species instead of decimating it. To all of you who have written in due to your concern for endangered species – kudos to you for wanting the bats to be saved.

  • Dear Mr. Sowders,

    To set the record straight, several individuals with Bat World Sanctuary have attempted to go through the “proper channels” for over THREE MONTHS, to no avail. We have spent well over a hundred hours trying to help the CRC help theses bats, and have also worked to prevent this from going public and jeopardizing future projects. We were ignored by the staff of CRC, and USFWS continually ignored our advice while excepting excuse after excuse from CRC about why the bats were dying. This could have been so easily prevented. The thing to remember is that the right thing can STILL be done to save the remaining bats. And we have offered repeatedly to do just that. The ball is in their court now, we are waiting with open arms to accept those dying animals.

  • While it’s possible that some individual bats within a group may learn to self-feed within 3-5 days, it’s not a hard and fast rule with any species. Some bats will learn within a few days, others will take weeks, and some never get it. The article states that those bats who didn’t learn to self-feed within the proscribed time limit starved to death. Why didn’t the staff hand-feed until it was clear that the bats were self-feeding? I’d bet that the consultants you spoke with advised you to do this.

  • I’m just a bat conservationist, bat enthusiast and bat lecturer who is occasionally called upon to provide short term care or overwintering for an insectivorous bat. I’ve found that whenever I have a question about something, Amanda (as well as a plethora of people who were trained by Amanda Lollar) and ‘Batline’s’ Sue Barnard are just an e-mail away.

    Whenever I’m stuck as to what to do if a problem comes up, they usually steer me in the right direction.

  • David Sowders

    I find this story very interesting and unfortunate, but at the same time the comments are a lot more revealing to me about what truly goes on when organizations try to do what is right, and probably why not more people do it. I do not understand the rehab world or how science-driven they are, but it seems to be driven by individual experiences and self-proclaimed expertise… Kudos to the Smithsonian for taking the chance, and shame on all of the rehabbers (, – your affiliations show when you scroll over your posted name!!) who seem very quick to be critical but offer nothing of use, and seem to have a coordinated agenda to attack within hours of this news. The quote from USFWS says it all “The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is the only organization to accept the challenge of this risky, groundbreaking, but essential endeavor.” Now you see all these people criticizing when they could’ve easily had their organizations step up and done it themselves. Why bicker and criticize and mention that scientists egos or lack of expertise this -and that instead of focus on saving an endangered species? If people like this truly cared about bats, they would go through proper channels of collaboration and not do their bashing on an internet posting.

  • Kitty

    What experts told you that bats would learn to self-feed in three to five days? As a bat rehabilitator I can assure you, there is no such timeline that the bats know about. They will learn to self-feed in their own time, or perhaps not at all. Until they do, they must be hand-fed twice a day. Scrupulous attention to the details of hygiene, caging, and medical issues is essential. As with any species of wildlife in captivity, proper caging and enrichment are a must, as well as taking care to reduce exposure to stressors.

    If this project were about Giant Pandas, would you have consulted Grizzly or Koala specialists when you had problems? I think not. So why didn’t you talk to the people who could have helped prevent this tragedy and make the project successful? Amanda Lollar at Bat World should have been your first phone call, followed by personal consultation with Leslie Sturges at Bat World NoVa.

  • The caretakers from the Smithsonian who trained with us did an excellent job while there were here. In my opinion, the Smithsonian had everything in place to make this project a huge success, including an on-sight, highly experienced bats care specialist to kick start the program. What went wrong? Inquiring minds would like to know.

    For starters, where was the information obtained regarding VBEB adapting to eating mealworms from a pan within three to five days. Bats are individuals, and while some may learn quickly, others may not. It is common knowledge among bat care specialists that bats who do not learn to self feed on mealworms must be hand fed twice daily for the remainder of their lives in captivity. Your article states “while some in the security colony successfully learned to eat mealworms out of pans, others did not, sometimes resulting in their deaths.” Can one assume from this statement that bats who could not learn to self-feed ultimately starved to death?

    An individual bat can he hand fed by a caretaker in three to five minutes, so please explain why it took “long hours of attention by a care team of keepers, a colony manager, a board certified veterinarian, nutritionist and veterinary technician” to feed these bats. Also, issues with skin and toes are easily rectified when proper treatments are applied. Please tell us why, during the three month period when these bats were dying, the Smithsonian choose to contact fruit bat husbandry experts for advice rather than insectivorous bat care specialists, who wished nothing more than to help you succeed with this project.

    Lastly, your article states that “…The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is the only organization to accept the challenge of this risky, groundbreaking, but essential endeavor.” This is not entirely true. There are rehabilitation facilities and bat care specialists who will readily accept this “challenge.”

  • Deb Welter

    I read the news article and consultant’s final report and to be perfectly honest, I feel nauseous. I am a licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator and I follow Amanda Lollar’s protocol and have had great success with bats. Certainly more than these people that were entrusted to care for these endangered bats. The arrogance of ignoring respected experts and their proven protocols is infuriating. And some of their procedures just go against Common Sense. Come on people, if you want to save these surviving 11 bats, turn them over to someone who knows what they are doing. If my patient survival rate was anywhere NEAR as poor as yours, I would have surrendered my Wildlife Rehabilitator’s license long ago.

  • Tom Hastings

    I think you miss the point here. There is a pool of experts to hand who already know about feeding and caring for bats in captivity, who wrote the books and who have years of experience.

    I am sure your staff and vet staff are caring and of the highest quality as you say but how much experience have they in teaching captive bats to eat?

    Why did you not seek help from rehabbers when the difficulty was encountered?

  • Dave Wildt

    We appreciate everyone’s interest in the program and are glad to take this opportunity to provide additional information.

    The Smithsonian team relied extensively on information available through the bat rehabilitation community. Our staff is very familiar with the reference text by Lollar and French (‘Captive Care and Medical Reference for the Rehabilitation of Insectivorous Bats’) as well as the companion manual ‘Diagnostic and Treatment Update for the Rehabilitation of Insectivorous Bats.’ Staff also referred to ‘Bats in Captivity’ edited by Susan Barnard. Two of our staff traveled to Bat World in Mineral Wells, TX for one week of training in bat husbandry and care. These staff members thought this experience was good, although it mostly focused on dealing with injured and orphaned individuals. Prior to the bat arrival, Leslie Sturges of Bat World NOVA visited the Front Royal facility and we were under the impression from her verbal comments that it was fine. One of our bat keeper employees also volunteered at the Sturges facility prior to starting duties at the Front Royal facility.

    In the months of preparation for the arrival of the bats, we were consistently told by several professionals that Virginia big-eared bats would adapt within three to five days to eating mealworms from pans. That did not happen – and the team spent long hours hand feeding individuals until they gradually began to learn. Some bats did learn within a few weeks, others literally took months, all of which required long hours of attention by a care team of keepers, a colony manager, a board certified veterinarian, nutritionist and veterinary technician. So we are highly confident in the quality of the care provided and that we relied on the information that already was available.

    Not all bats are similar, and we believe there is a lot to learn about maintaining long-term security populations of bats in captive collections. Certainly, it is clear to us now why there are so few insectivorous bat populations in zoo genetic management programs. Likewise, it is just this type of project that can address how a specialized subspecies like the Virginia big-eared bat can survive – and then thrive – in a security population. Despite our staff’s hard work and the enormous regret they felt with every loss, we have learned a lot – information that will be useful to others (and to us) as we deal with the white nose syndrome challenge in the future.

    • Diana Barber

      I’d also like to point out that while many species of bats have been kept successfully in captivity for years (e.g. Tadarida, Myotis, Eptesticus), there were no reports of colonies of big eared bats being successfully kept in captivity in the scientific literature or in the experience of rehabbers and scientists surveyed (on Batline). There were anectdotal reports of one or two individuals being maintained for a year before release, but nothing on the scale planned with this species or even with Townsend’s.

      I am a bit surprised that someone told the Smithsonian to expect it to take 3-5 days for a bat to learn to eat from a dish, that is an optimistic estimate even for ground gleaning bats learning to feed. Given the species natural history, I’d expect 3-5 weeks as a more realistic learning period. I am also surprised that they did not learn the trick of putting the bats individually in smaller enclosures to help them learn to feed during their training at Bat World (also helps track who’s getting enough food).

  • I’m surprised with your last paragraph of needing a learning curve to care for captive bats. Wildlife rehabbers have been taking care of bats for years. Amanda Lollar and Sue Bernard have both written books on the captive care of bats. The bats do have to learn to eat mealworms since it’s not part of their normal diet of flying insects but making a blending mealworm mix with vitamins and minerals served with a syringe or eyedropper will train the bat to whole mealworms over time and gradually to self feeding. great advances in the past few years with rehabbers and vets due primarily with the internet and conferences on bat rehab problems has greatly increased the knowledge of the care of bats and the survival rates for them. I highly suggest your team get Amanda Lollars adn Barbara French’s book which can be found on their website The newsgroup is hope to see you there. Bruce (not Wayne) Taylor Oklahoma lic rehabber bats Director FEWERR the Foundation for Environmental & Wildlife; Education, Research & Rehab

  • Brenda Malinics

    Why didn’t these scientists know how to feed these bats? Scientists must collaborate with the rehabbers who know how to get bats to feed from bowls–every injured bat that comes into rehab views a bowl and mealworms, as a foreign object, but there are proven ways to accomplish bats to eat a strange food source from a scary ojbect (bowl). Egos must be left at the door and the goal of the research must remain in the forefront of everyone’s mind–save the bats. There are many skilled persons who are qualified and able to work with this colony, but once again the “status of the organization” won out over the bats’ welfare. Shame on the Smithsonian and everyone who failed to be prepared to take on this challenge. Once again, the animals lose.

  • This effort to save our wild bat populations from the dreaded threat of WNS and possible sub species extinction cannot afford to overlook the experts who have been successfully maintaining captive bat colonies for years. Amanda Lollar of Bat World Sanctuary has dedicated many years of her life to the
    welfare of bats. Besides her personal dedication to bats, she has co authored a book on the captive care for rehabilitation and of insectivorous bats and also has trained many professional bat rehabilitators in this area. There are some of these trained personel with rescue centers stationed admist the heart of WNS territory.
    It will cost years of research, time which the bats may not have, to ignore or fail to tap into this avenue of knowledge and expertise.

  • Laura Flandreau

    I am a bat rehabilitation volunteer who has been trained by expert bat rehabilitators including Amanda Lollar (Bat World Sanctuary: Whereas other captive wild animals require basic husbandry, bats are far more fragile and the requirements for their survival in captivity far more complicated and specific to their unique needs. It makes no sense that you have attempted to reinvent the wheel with your VA Big Eared project, when you could have received expert advice from Ms Lollar and others in the bat rehab community. Please contact and/or Leslie Sturges of Bat World NOVA.

  • With the many individuals and institutions that successfully keep insectivorous bats, I am very surprised to read that only 11 captive VA big-eared bats survive. Something is wrong here. Clearly, there wasn’t enough preparation for this effort before extracting the bats from their natural cave environment.

  • How disturbing it is to hear that animals from an endangered population were removed for captive purposes before effective protocols were established to ensure their survival.

    Why do we need to reinvent the wheel at the animals’ expense? Wildlife rehabilitators manage to keep adult bats alive through the rehabilitation process. The US Fish and Wildlife Service should have insisted that the rehabilitation experts were consulted before approving this project. Common sense here please!! Our false pride will be our own demise.

  • Laura

    It is incredibly frustrating to hear of the failure of this program, particularly since the expertise to care for such bats in captivity is available and is proven successful. The Smithsonian would have been more successful, and lives would have been saved, if they had simply followed established protocols instead of trying to invent their own. There was no need for the scientists to “discover” anything at the expense of bats’ lives, as baseline feeding and husbandry practices for insectivorous bats are already well-known and successfully practiced by professional wildlife rehabilitators throughout the country. Additionally, no bats would have died from septicemia had proper grooming and medical protocols been followed.

  • Ian Kitchen

    YES PLEASE sign on to Bat world you might learn something in stead of trying to reinvent the wheel.
    There are many clever dedicated people on there who are not ‘scientists’ but have been keeping bats for years.

  • Rosemarie Curcio

    There are many wildlife rehabilitators,such as myself, who have had tremendous success in feeding bats that will not eat from dishes. Perhaps you should reach out to this community for help in this area.

  • I would be my recommendation to check out plus contact Amanda Lollar. She successfully maintains a colony of mexican freetails along with flying foxes,Jamacan fruit bats to name a few. Her web site has many hints on feeding information also. You might want to contact Leslie Sturges in virginia. She also maintains a colony of bats.

  • Absolutely astounding and highly suspect. Insectivorous bats have been maintained in captivity for decades without an extraordinary number of die-offs in a short amount of time, such as the National Zoo experienced. This species is not known to be extremely sensitive in captivity, so it makes one question what really happened here. And who, exactly, was contacted for advice? And was that advice actually followed? This article is very suspicious and opens the doors for numerous questions about why such a catastrophic failure was allowed to occur in a critically endangered species.