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“Protected bat habitat is even more important now, because the survivors will need these sites next year.”
— Rose Paul, the Conservancy's director of science and stewardship in Vermont.
Go Deeper
USFWS White-Nose Web SiteVisit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Web site for current information about white-nose syndrome in the Northeast.
The Conservancy in VermontInnovative conservation is taking place across the Green Mountain State. Check out the latest news from the Conservancy in Vermont.
Saving the Heart of the AdirondacksSee how the Conservancy is working with partners to balance environmental and economic needs in the Adirondacks.
“This significant loss of bats means we could have billions more insects.”
— Scott Darling, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist
By Darci Palmquist
“The floor of the cave was littered with dead bats.”
That's what U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Darling wrote after surveying The Nature Conservancy's Mt. Aeolus Cave in early March — where a mysterious new illness that's ravaging bat populations throughout the U.S. Northeast has taken hold.
The illness — called white-nose syndrome — is decimating bats in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut and threatening to spread to nearby states.
The Nature Conservancy has protected some of the largest bat caves in the Northeast — including Vermont's Mt. Aeolus Cave, where more than 20,000 bats over winter, and a cave in New York that supports some 200,000 bats. These sites, once crucial to the recovery of bat species, are now at the center of a massive effort to discover the cause and spread of white-nose syndrome.
Bats Emerging Early from Hibernation
The syndrome was first discovered at bat hibernacula (winter hibernation sites) in New York in 2007. With more and more sites of infection reported this year, biologists anticipate up to 95 percent of bats in the Northeast could die within the next two years — an estimated loss of 500,000 bats.
Very little is known yet about white-nose syndrome. The tell-tale sign is a snowy fungus that can appear on the nose, ears and wings, though not all afflicted bats exhibit this fungus.
Scientists believe the fungus is a symptom, not a cause, of the problem. Other symptoms include dehydration and emaciation, causing bats to rouse out of hibernation early and look for food and water.
“Basically, they're just starving to death and dying, and that's all we know at this point,” reports Susi von Oettingen in a video from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that has circulated widely on YouTube.
Researchers are working diligently to uncover clues to the mystery. There are many possible theories — virus, bacteria, pesticide build-up or a combination of factors could be causing white nose.
“No 'smoking gun' has been isolated yet,” says Darling. Wildlife and animal health labs across the country are assisting in the analysis of both affected and healthy bats.
One thing is certain: Because bats live for 20-30 years and produce only one pup a year, recovery will be very slow.
Protection Brought Bats Back
Until white-nose syndrome struck, bat species like the little brown and the endangered Indiana bat had been on the rebound after years of decline due to habitat loss and human disturbance.
In the largest hibernaculum in the Northeast — a Conservancy-protected cave in New York's Adirondacks — bat numbers increased from 117,000 in 1991 to 185,000 in 2000.
Michelle Brown, conservation scientist for The Nature Conservancy in the Adirondacks, says that the Conservancy's protection efforts — including the 1997 installation of a gate at the cave's mouth — helped bats recover. Gating cave entrances keeps people out of sensitive habitat while allowing bats entry and exit.
“A cave is an attractive thing to explore,” explains Rose Paul, the Conservancy's director of science and stewardship in Vermont. "But just the presence of people in caves is enough to prevent bats from making it to spring."
Slight alterations in cave temperature or humidity can rouse bats from hibernation, causing them to fly around and deplete fat reserves. Paul and her team installed a new gate across the Mt. Aeolus cave in 2004. Gates have also been placed across Conservancy-protected hibernacula in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
While there is no indication yet that humans could be affected by white-nose syndrome or spread it, people should stay out of caves — even those without gates — until more information is known. As a precautionary step, cavers have been asked to voluntarily stay out of caves until May 15 to make sure they do not inadvertently spread the disease.
What Happens Next?
With up to 95 percent of bats facing certain death from white-nose syndrome, past conservation efforts seem all for naught. But the situation could have been worse if not for these efforts, says Paul.
“There will be some survivors,” she says. “Protected bat habitat is even more important now, because the survivors will need these sites next year.”
Paul emphasizes the importance of summer maternity habitat in addition to winter hibernation sites. The Conservancy has protected more than 20,000 acres in the Champlain Valley, where many bats in the Northeast go to breed and raise their young.
Meanwhile, the impacts of a massive loss of bats on humans and nature is largely unknown. Bats can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes and other insects a night, providing natural pest control for farmers and helping keep insect populations in check.
“This significant loss of bats means we could have billions more insects,” says Darling.
Scientists are reluctant to speculate about other potential impacts until more is known about the causes and spread of white-nose syndrome. The Conservancy will continue to help the investigation by providing access to protected caves for monitoring and research purposes.
With any luck, conservation efforts will aid in the recovery of bat species — for a second time.
Darci Palmquist is editorial associate for
Nature picture credits: (top to bottom, left to right) Photo © Robert and Linda Mitchell (bats flying at sunset); Connie Prickett/TNC (Little-brown bat with white-nose syndrome.)
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