Mike Groll/AP
Scott Crocoll holds a dead Indiana bat in an abandoned mine in Rosendale, N.Y.

Heated Boxes Could Save Bats' Lives, Researchers Say

March 09, 2009 07:30 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Two researchers are planning to test how bats afflicted with white-nose syndrome respond to heated boxes placed inside their caves, a potentially life-saving idea, they say.

Heated Caves Could Save Bats

There may soon be relief for bats suffering from "white-nose syndrome," a deadly affliction that has resulted in more than a half million bat deaths in the past three winters along the Eastern Seaboard. MSNBC reported on a possible remedy that will be tested by two researchers, first written about in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The researchers plan to put heated boxes in bats' hibernation caves—not to cure white-nose syndrome, but to help the bats maintain enough energy and warmth "to survive hibernation season." Over the next few months, the researchers will test the boxes in a Manitoba, Canada bat cave.

The syndrome, which is not dangerous to people, causes bats to use up their stores of fat before spring and to end hibernation early to look for food; many die in the attempt. Researchers say that if bat populations shrink, the insects they feed on could multiply and hurt crops. The added heat in caves could keep bats inside longer.
The disorder, known as white-nose syndrome for the characteristic white marks it leaves on those it infects, was found two years ago in caves west of Albany, N.Y. It has since spread to other states—New Jersey, Pennsylvania and possibly West Virginia—and is killing hundreds of thousands of bats.

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Background: How white-nose syndrome began

In Pennsylvania, a Bucknell University biologist and the state game commission research partner confirmed that the syndrome is killing off bats at a fast pace. “What we found was really dramatic,” said DeeAnn Reader. “There were just hundreds of dead bats on the snow outside these caves. As white-nose has marched across from New York to Pennsylvania, we expected this would happen, but to all of a sudden see this mass mortality is just sickening.”

Residents of Vermont and Massachusetts reported unusual bat behavior, such as flying around in daylight during winter, according to the Rutland Herald.

Despite rampant popular culture depictions of bats as sinister, they benefit their environs in many ways. Bats are “important pollinators and seed dispersers,” according to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Many bat species eat crop pests and other harmful insects, such as mosquitoes. “In addition,” the museum’s Web site explains, “bat guano (feces) is often used to fertilize crops. Many tons of guano are mined each year from caves where bats aggregate in large numbers.” However, bats can carry and transmit malaria and rabies.

Related Topics: Tasmanian devils, bees, other animals imperiled

Bats are just one of several animal species to be decimated by rare illnesses lately; honeybees and Tasmanian devils have also been affected.

In Australia, experts say that a rare cancer is threatening to eradicate Tasmanian devils. The illness, devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), has already killed about half of the species and could cause them to disappear completely from the wild in about 20 years. The Australian government reports that since 1996, when the first case of DFTD was reported, devil numbers have fallen from 150,000 to somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000.

The worldwide spread of Colony Collapse Disorder, which is causing bees to disappear across the globe, recently prompted the European Parliament to approve the creation of special “recovery zones” where bees will be provided with pesticide-free habitats.

A comprehensive five-year survey of almost 5,500 mammal species has found that about half are in decline, and more than 1,100 face extinction. The scientists who put together the Red List of Threatened Species 2008, released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said that the results were ”bleak and depressing” and that the situation is unlikely to improve in the future.

“Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our own actions, a frightening sign of what is happening to the ecosystems where they live,” said Julia Marton-Lefevre, the director-general of the IUCN, in a news release.

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