Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bats with White Noses

What a difference a day makes. No, spring is not here, yet. We just traded yesterday's fog, rain, and calm for today's cold, sun, and wind. A brisk north wind.

This continuing wintry weather has me thinking about bats. And it is a worrying story here in the Northeast. Bats are waking up in winter and dying. Two winters ago, biologists discovered that bats in four hibernacula (caves and mines where bats hibernate in winter) in New York had a white powder on their noses and some bats were flying around and dying. As true hibernators, bats should never be flying around inside or outside a cave in winter.

This photo, from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department website by Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, shows bats with white noses.

Last winter, the same phenomenon was found in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut hibernacula. This winter, hibernacula in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia were found to have bats with white noses. This map from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website shows the geographic distribution of the syndrome.

And that is what it is called -- white nose syndrome. The scary part is that no one yet knows what is going on, except that hundreds of thousands of bats have died so far. In some cases, 90-100% of the bats in a given hibernaculum are dying.

Dozens of labs are researching the bats and the white material. No viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens have been detected, but the white stuff is identified as a cold-loving fungus. It starts on the nose and spreads to the rest of the bat's body. It is not clear if the fungus wakes up the bats -- maybe they get itchy -- which causes them to lose a lot of weight, in part because they start shivering, then they start flying around in search of insects. And there is no food in winter, so they continue to lose weight. Many dead and dying bats are found outside of caves lying about on the snow.

Most of the affected bats in New Hampshire are little brown bats, but other hibernators including Eastern pipistrelle, Northern long-eared bat, and small-footed bat are also affected. In other states, the Endangered Indiana bat is also showing the syndrome.

Bats are extraordinarily important, eating tons of insects each night. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state partners are asking cavers to avoid any caves with hibernating bats. Anyone going into such caves needs to follow careful decontamination procedures as it is still unknown if bats, people, or both, or some other source is spreading the syndrome from site to site. If you find a dead or dying bat with white material, do not handle the bat - call your state wildlife agency. If bats are roosting in your barn or shed try to leave them alone. These roosts may be critical to the future survival of bats in our region.

For much more information on the white nose syndrome in bats visit the The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region website.

I think many of us will be anxiously watching for little brown bats flying around our yards and neighborhoods this summer, a sign that some bats are surviving the syndrome, at least so far.

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