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article imageMassive Bat Die-Off Continues, Spreads

By Martin Laine     Apr 21, 2010 in Environment
A mysterious disease decimating bat populations throughout the northeast has now spread as far south as Tennessee and, for the first time, has been found in Canada.
There is neither a known cause nor cure, and the plague threatens to extirpate the region’s most common species, the little brown bat, and other species are beginning to be affected as well.
Meanwhile, ecologists are bracing themselves wondering what the effect of the sudden loss of a major insectivore will be on the region’s ecosystem.
“White Nose Syndrome” (WNS), named for the distinctive white fungus that forms on the noses of diseased bats, was first found in caves in New York in the winter of 2006-2007. The bats appear to contract the disease while they are hibernating in caves – known as hibernacula – over the winter. It is nearly always fatal, leaving heaps of dead bats on the floors of these caves.
In a cave in Litchfield County, Connecticut, for example, 3,300 hibernating bats were counted in 2007. This winter, there were a less than a dozen.
“When you put together the massive die-offs in our hibernacula and the continued spread of WNS in the northern hemisphere, the news is not good,” said Jenny Dickson, Supervising Wildlife Biologist for Connecticut’s Dept. of Environmental Protection.
Last month, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources confirmed the first known cases in that province, in a cave in the Bancroft-Minden area. While the number of infected bats was relatively small, the outlook is grim.
“In terms of assessing the impact here in Canada we have to look to the U.S.,” said John Dungavell, an advisor to the ministry. He pointed out that the mortality rate has been from 80 to 99 percent among infected bats.
And just last week, wildlife biologists in Quebec announced they had found infected bats there as well.
The connection between the fungus that appears on the infected bats and their eventual death is not entirely clear. Some scientists think the presence of the fungus may cause the bats to rouse from their hibernation too early, at a time when there are no insects for them to feed on, and so they eventually weaken and die.
But infected bats have displayed other odd behaviors, as well, such as flying during daylight hours, indicating that there may be some other, as yet undiscovered, cause.
As to what will happen once the bats are gone, that is a matter for speculation. Bats eat huge amounts of insects, especially mosquitoes, and play a major role in keeping those populations under control. For humans, this, in turn, means they help control outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases. In the absence of bats, this could mean increased use of pesticides to fill the void.
More about Bats, White nose syndrome, Die-off
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