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Bat population in tailspin

Scientists believe a European fungus is killing bats throughout eastern states

May 15, 2010
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Outdoors Writer

RAY BROOK - Northeast bat populations, including those in the Adirondacks, are continuing to plummet at a pace that could lead to the extirpations of three species - little brown, northern and tri-colored bats - in less than a decade, according to state wildlife biologist Al Hicks.

Hicks gave a presentation to the state Adirondack Park Agency Thursday, providing an update on white nose syndrome, a fungus that scientists believe is killing the bats. The bats starve after their winter fat reserves are depleted, although scientists don't know exactly why that happens.

The fungus can be found on the bat's nose, ears and wings. Hicks said one of the major problems it causes is that it eats away at the tissue in the bat's wings.

Article Photos

This bat has deadly white fungus on its nose, ears and wings.
(Photo - Al Hicks, DEC)

Attempts to help the bats with anti-fungal agents have so far been unsuccessful, Hicks said.

The situation is so bad that a species of bat that is federally endangered could soon become the most populous bat in New York.

"There is a chance this year that the Indiana bat could become the most common bat in New York," Hicks said.

The little brown bat, which has the largest population, has been especially susceptible to this fungus.

White nose syndrome has been affecting New York bats since at least February 2006, when a caver took photos of affected bats in Howe Cavern between Albany and Cooperstown. The next winter, white nose syndrome was recognized as a serious problem by the state Department of Environmental Conservation after biologists discovered thousands of dead bats at Hailes Cave near Albany.

Since that time, hundreds of thousands of bats have died, jeopardizing the populations of six species in New York. Over the past few winters, some Adirondack bat caves and mines that have been affected include those near Lyon Mountain, Chapel Pond near Keene Valley and the Graphite Mine in Hague.

The Graphite Mine was especially hard hit. This mine was the site of the largest-ever bat count in the Northeast in March 2000, when 185,019 bats were found there. However, this February, a survey found only 2,545 bats in the mine. That means the populations declined by 99 percent.

Scientists believe the fungus geomyces destructans, which has existed in Europe since at last 1980, is what's killing the bats.

"It was just recently confirmed to be the same species that we have here, so this almost is certainly (the case of another) invasive exotic species, another one that has landed on our shores, and (is) ripping through the native flora or fauna, and in this case fauna," Hicks said. "And it is ripping through. Our bats are dying at amazingly high numbers."

Not only are bats dying throughout at the Northeast because of this fungus, but its spreading throughout the eastern United States.

In 2008, the fungus spread about 200 kilometers from near Albany to the Watertown area. In 2009, it spread 900k to nine states, as far south as Virginia.

This winter, it spread to Ontario, Missouri and Tennessee.

"It spread as far this winter as it spread in the previous four years combined," Hicks said. "So it's not looking good."

Contact Mike Lynch at 891-2600 ext. 28 or mlynch@adirondack



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