Science

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Mike Groll/AP
Scott Crocoll holds a dead Indiana bat in an abandoned mine in Rosendale, N.Y., Tuesday,
Jan. 27, 2009. White nose syndrome is killing more bats over a larger area this winter.

White-Nose Syndrome Spreading Among Bats

February 06, 2009 10:29 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The mysterious fungal disease, which causes hibernating bats to develop white smudges on their noses and wings, is killing the creatures in several states.

Disorder Endangering Bats

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The disorder, known as white-nose syndrome for the characteristic white marks it leaves on those it infects, was found two years ago in a cave in Albany, N.Y. it has since spread to five other states—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Vermont and Massachusetts—and is killing hundreds of thousands of bats.

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. They do not yet know how to stop the disorder.

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.

One of the bat species that have been affected is the Indiana bat, and last year conservation groups threatened to sue federal wildlife and land-management agencies unless they took action. “We are looking at the potential extinction of several species of bats in the Northeast within a few years’ time. There can be no more excuses for allowing activities that harm bats or destroy bat habitat,” said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate in the Center for Biological Diversity in Richmond. “We may not be able to stop white-nose syndrome, but we can definitely stop cutting down forests, building roads, and allowing sprawl in places where endangered bats live.”

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

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Related Topics: Tasmanian devils, bees, other animals imperiled

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 something 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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