White nose syndrome threatens bat species

A little brown bat with white nose syndrome in New York state.
A little brown bat with white nose syndrome in New York state. (Photo courtesy Al Hicks, New York Department of Environmental Conservation)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 10:59 PM

The killing season has begun.

Hordes of bats recently flew into abandoned mines and caves across the region for their annual winter hibernation - and more than likely, wildlife biologists said, tens of thousands won't fly back out.

A flesh-eating fungus has stalked and killed them for at least four years. More than one million bats from at least seven species are estimated to have died from a disease called white nose syndrome for the way it covers their snouts like baby powder. This year, as white nose sweeps west from Northeast states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania to Oklahoma, scientists are bracing for the worst.

"The worry is great, tremendous," said Greg Turner, an specialist in endangered mammals who works for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Although white nose syndrome has been spotted in numerous Virginia caves, it hasn't yet had a profound impact on the beloved Virginia big-eared bat.

But the most common resident of this region, the little brown bat, is barely hanging on. And two other species - the tri-colored bat and the northern long-eared bat - are expected to become extinct.

"I'm seeing 100 percent mortality of those two species," Turner said. "We will have a 99 percent reduction of the little brown bat."

Last winter, two-thirds of Pennsylvania's more than 2,000 caves and 4,000 abandoned mines were affected by white nose syndrome, Turner said. This winter, game officials expect that "all the sites we know of will have white nose," Turner said.

Although most people might not mourn the demise of bats, perhaps because of the creatures' unearned reputation as a nocturnal bloodsucker, a major decrease in their numbers could pose a substantial ecological risk.

Each bat eats half its weight in insects every night, according to Wildlife Magazine, published by Defenders of Wildlife. They especially crave big crunchy moths that lay worm-producing eggs in corn.

Without bats, billions of bugs would go uneaten, and farmers and loggers might be forced to use more pesticides to protect trees and crops, potentially driving up the price of produce and further damaging the ecology. Homeowners might one day find more gypsy moths than usual threatening to destroy a beloved oak.

White nose syndrome was first discovered in a cave near Albany, N.Y., but it took years for scientists to identify its source. "It's not been recorded in history," said Jeremy Coleman, national white nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Studies later showed that it was part of a mild-mannered genus of fungus called geomyces. The most familiar member of the genus is the fungus commonly known as "athlete's foot."

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