Bat Numbers Plummet in White-nose Caves

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Bat Numbers Plummet in White-nose Caves

From Associated Press
December 2009

Some wildlife biologists have said white-nose represents the most serious threat to wildlife in a century. Bats are voracious insect eaters, and scientists fear a mass die-off could lead to more insect damage to crops.

Bat populations in caves struck by deadly white-nose syndrome have plunged by up to 93 percent, according to a survey of Northeast hibernation sites at the epicenter of the spreading scourge.

White-nose, named for the smudges of fungus on the noses and wings of hibernating bats, is estimated to have killed more than a million bats in nine states since it was first noticed in a cluster of caves in upstate New York in 2006. Caves and mines littered with bat carcasses have become a common wintertime sight since then. But the survey released Wednesday by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation quantifies just how deadly white-nose can be for individual bat species.

"It really raises a question as to whether they can sustain this or not, and how long it will be before they disappear if this trend continues," said Al Hicks, a state wildlife biologist.

Researchers meticulously counted hibernating bats in 23 caves and mines that had been hit by white nose and compared the tallies to past numbers. Most of the caves were in eastern New York, with four in western Massachusetts and one in Vermont.

Winter populations at the caves went from 55,084 bats to 4,853, a 91 percent drop. But rates differed among different species of bats. For instance, little brown bats dropped by 93 percent while Indiana bats, an endangered species, dropped by 53 percent. Hicks noted that bats that prefer cooler, drier roosts — like the Indiana — generally did better, though he said there were too many exceptions to draw a conclusion.

White-nose has been confirmed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Stricken bats burn through their winter fat stores before spring.

Scientists believe a fungus that thrives in cold, moist caves causes white-nose. Officials have closed some caves in case humans are unwittingly spreading the fungus from cave to cave on their boots or clothes. Midwest states were advised by federal officials this month to be prepared to close caves if white-nose spreads west this winter.

Some wildlife biologists have said white-nose represents the most serious threat to wildlife in a century. Bats are voracious insect eaters, and scientists fear a mass die-off could lead to more insect damage to crops.

While the new survey covered just a percentage of the caves with white nose in a selected area, Hicks said there’s no reason to believe decline rates would be different at affected caves elsewhere.

"We are the Ghost of Christmas Future for other states," he said.