Disease and community structure: white-nose syndrome alters spatial and temporal niche partitioning in sympatric bat species
Emerging infectious diseases present a major perturbation with apparent direct effects such as reduced population density, extirpation and/or extinction. Comparatively less is known about the potential indirect effects of disease that likely alter community structure and larger ecosystem function. Since 2006, white-nose syndrome (WNS) has resulted in the loss of over 6 million hibernating bats in eastern North America. Considerable evidence exists concerning niche partitioning in sympatric bat species in this region, and the unprecedented, rapid decline in multiple species following WNS may provide an opportunity to observe a dramatic restructuring of the bat community.
We conducted our study at Fort Drum Army Installation in Jefferson and Lewis counties, New York, USA, where WNS first impacted extant bat species in winter 2007–2008.
Acoustical monitoring during 2003–2011 allowed us to test the hypothesis that spatial and temporal niche partitioning by bats was relaxed post-WNS.
We detected nine bat species pre- and post-WNS. Activity for most bat species declined post-WNS. Dramatic post-WNS declines in activity of little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus, MYLU), formerly the most abundant bat species in the region, were associated with complex, often species-specific responses by other species that generally favoured increased spatial and temporal overlap with MYLU.
In addition to the obvious direct effects of disease on bat populations and activity levels, our results provide evidence that disease can have cascading indirect effects on community structure. Recent occurrence of WNS in North America, combined with multiple existing stressors, is resulting in dramatic shifts in temporal and spatial niche partitioning within bat communities. These changes might influence long-term population viability of some bat species as well as broader scale ecosystem structure and function.