Monday, December 27, 2010

ComBATting ‘white-nose syndrome’

Bats are in grave danger from a lethal white fungus that’s found on the wings and snouts of those infected by “white-nose syndrome.” Their main hibernation site in New Jersey, Morris County’s Hibernia Mine, is now described as more of a morgue than a wintering haven for bats.

Since it was detected in a New York cave in 2006, the disease has killed more than 90% of the wild bats in the Northeast, hitting especially hard in NJ, with nine bat species. (Altogether, there are about 45 different bat species in the continental US.)

Once up to 30,000 bats gathered in Hibernia Mine to hibernate for the winter; now just a few hundred hang on the walls. A state biologist with the Endangered and Non-Game Species Program reports that “last spring, before they left hibernation, we found only about 1,715 bats” there.

Worse yet, fewer than 650 returned this fall to hibernate – so the syndrome is affecting them even after they leave, he added. Those who survive hibernation are weakened and leave the hibernaculum later than others. Some die at that point because “the fungus created holes in their wings and they cannot fly to feed.”

A study now underway will test whether bats who have recovered from the disease will remain immune to it. Since they were rescued from sure death last April, in the throes of white-nose syndrome, six little brown bats were hand-nursed back to health at a rehab center. About a month ago, they were returned to Hibernia Mine for this winter’s hibernation.

The question: after catching it and being cured, will these bats have developed any kind of resistance to white-nose syndrome, or will they become just as infected when returned to the environment where they first contracted it?

Hoping for good news next spring.

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