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 Post subject: White-nose syndrome appears to be spreading to more states
PostPosted: Tue Feb 03, 2009 6:02 pm 
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White-nose syndrome appears to be spreading to more states

By MICHAEL HILL • Associated Press Writer • February 3, 2009

ROSENDALE, N.Y. (AP) -- Deadly white-nose syndrome is striking more bats over a larger area this winter, reaching south into New Jersey and Pennsylvania and emptying caves in hard-hit areas like New York.

"There are not as many as there are supposed to be," bat counter Ryan von Linden whispered deep inside a cave in New York's Hudson Valley. His headlamp swept across isolated clusters of bats hanging of the rock ceiling. "Not even close."

Two winters after it was first observed, bats in at least a half-dozen states have been infected by white nose and a suspicious sighting has closed a cave preserve in West Virginia as a precaution. While researchers recently identified the fungus that creates the distinctive white smudges on hibernating bats' noses and wings, they are scrambling to find a way to stop the scourge before it spreads even farther.

"The cause for concern is that this is going to race across the country faster than we can come up with a solution," said Alan Hicks, a wildlife biologist with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation. "Nowth of New York City to assess white nose damage. They spent the day clambering over rocks and padding across patches of subterranean ice to count bats, a painstaking process that requires digital pictures of every bat hibernating in the cathedral-like space.

The news was grim.

Hicks estimated the number of Indiana bats, an endangered species, is down 15 to 35 percent from last year's cave-wide count of roughly 19,000. The number of little brown bats, a species devastated by white nose, was also down.

Cave counters speak to each other in church whispers, but some hibernating bats are bothered just the same. A chorus of squeaks echoed in the blackness above and a few fluttered by visitors' headlamps.

The researchers also plucked 14 groggy little brown bats from the rock, weighed them, measured them, snipped a little spot of hair on their backs and stuck a tiny radio transmitter to their backs to track their activity levels. It is part of ongoing research to better understand the syndrome.

Bats with white nose burn through their fat stores before spring, driving some to rouse early from hibernation in a futile search for food. The syndrome poses no health threat to humans, though some scientists say that if bat populations diminish too much, the insects and crop pests they eat could flourish.

First noticed in a few caves west of Albany two winters ago, white nose spread fast last winter to dozens of caves within a roughly 150-mile radius, affecting New York and southern New England.

It's spreading again this winter.

Bats with white nose were recently found in New Jersey's Morris County and in an old iron mine in Shindle, Pa., more than 200 miles away from the outbreak's epicenter. In West Virginia, the National Speleological Society has temporarily shut down the John Guilday Caves Nature Preserve as a possible white nose sighting is investigated. If confirmed, it would increase the radius of infected caves to around 450 miles.

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey's Wildlife Health Center this fall established that the sugary smudges on affected bats are a previously undescribed type of fungus that thrives in the refrigerator-like cold of winter caves. David Blehert, head of microbiology at the Madison, Wis., center, is leading experiments to definitively establish whether the fungus causes white-nose syndrome.

Still, there is enough circumstantial evidence to lead biologists to focus on ways to stop the fungus.

Since the fungus likes it cold and moist, they could try to lower humidity levels in at least some crucial caves, though that could create other problems. Researchers are also looking at the possibility of a fungicide, or even a fungus-killing bacteria that could spread from bat to bat. Ward Stone, New York's wildlife pathologist, said he has been able to culture a bacteria that lives on big brown bats and kills the white-nose fungus in a lab.

Still, tests need to be performed to see if any of the options are realistic. And as Blehert notes, time is "our biggest enemy."

Already, there are 40 confirmed white nose sites in the last few years, said Jeremy Coleman, white nose coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Cortland, N.Y. He added the numbers could soon rise as cave inspections and bat counts begin in earnest this month.

"It could get a lot worse," Coleman said, "because the season's early."

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