Posted by: teatown | April 22, 2009

Bats Threatened

White-nose Syndrome Arrives in Putnam County

In February 2006, a caver visiting a cave near Albany, New York, photographed several hibernating bats with an unusual white substance encircling their noses. The same caver also noticed several dead bats lying on the cave floor. By the winter of 2007, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation began receiving reports from the area west of Albany of bats uncharacteristically flying during winter days; sick bats with white noses; and dead bats in several caves.

These  bat deaths would prove to be the beginning of what appears to be a deadly epidemic for bats and an ecological disaster for the northeastern United States, and perhaps, beyond. In 2008 and 2009, hundreds of thousands of hibernating bats with white noses have died in caves and mines from Vermont to Virginia. New locations in 2009 included Fahnestock  State Park in Putnam County, New York. So, “white-nose syndrome” has come to our Hudson Hills and Highlands bats.  Will we see less bats this year?  What will be the affects to our region? 

Some biologists estimate a two-year population lost of up to 75% for some species of northeastern cave bats (e.g. little brown and big brown bats). At most risk is the already endangered Indiana bat. Often the infected bats are low in body weigh and fat. In some caves or mines, 90 to 100 percent of the bats have been found dead.

Biologists from nonprofit, state and federal agencies are  trying to find the cause of this deadly mystery. Recent identification of a previously undescribed cold-loving fungus (of the Genus Geomyces) is the cause of the white noses – but it is unclear if this is an emerging fungal pathogen disease or if the fungus is a consequence of sick bats weakened from some other causal agent. Some biologist suggest declining number of food insects from misuse of pesticides causes the bats to enter hibernation with insufficient fat stores.  Others wonder if climate change has changed the energetics inside caves. 

If the fungus is an “emerging disease” (a disease new to an area, often transported by people form one area of the world to another where native animals/plants have no evolved defenses), the situation would be similar to the chytrid fungus skin infections that has been implicated in the death and extinctions of a rising number of amphibians.  Why are such emerging diseases on the rise?

New York is home for nine species of bats. Six of these species hibernate in caves and mines in the winter months – and consequently are at risk of the white-nose syndrome. Bats are misunderstood creatures. To the informed they are known to be beneficial to our environment and ecological health. They are the only mammal that can fly, and our New York bats are insect-eating machines, performing incredible aerial acrobatics as they chase and catch up to 50% of their weight in insects each night. Their economic value in devouring insects is worth millions of dollars each year to the agricultural community and to our outdoor comfort.

To see photos and maps, visit the USGS National Wildlife Health Center White-nose Syndrome Webpage.  You can follow this website to learn how scientists are working together in hope of  finding a solution to this wildlife crisis. It is a veterinary medicine detective story.

If you see any unusual bat behavior in our area — for example, dying bats on the ground (do not touch them, as bats can carry rabies)  or note an unusual absence of bats in your own backyard this summer — please post a comment to this post.

Posted by Fred Koontz

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