Weird white bat fungus shows up in the state

Harrisburg – The Pennsylvania Game Commission is working with
several states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to sort out
what is killing bats in New York and New England.

Although white-nose syndrome (WNS) has not been found in
Pennsylvania – and agency officials hope it stays that way – the
state is fast becoming an integral player in regional and national
efforts aimed at learning more about this unprecedented threat to
bats.

Just mentioning the words white-nose syndrome to Game Commission
biologist Greg Turner brings concern to his face. He knows the
disease is just over the border in New York, as well as
Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, and recognizes it’s not
something that Pennsylvania’s bat population can endure without
negative consequences.

In many northeastern hibernacula where it has struck, white-
nose syndrome has decimated wintering bat colonies with mortality
that ranges from 80 percent to 100 percent. Now there are symptoms
in Pennsylvania bat hibernacula that have heightened concern among
agency bat biologists, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service.

“We found fungus on bats’ ears and wings – similar to that on
bats afflicted with white-nose syndrome in Vermont and New York –
at sites in Fayette, Luzerne and Blair counties,” said Turner.

“One of the sites, Hartman Mine, at Canoe Creek State Park in
Blair County, is the state’s largest hibernaculum for Indiana bats,
a federally endangered species.

“The good news is no dead bats have been found to date in
Pennsylvania, and the bats we captured in mist nets leaving
hibernacula were not grossly underweight, a noticeable condition
observed in many bats affected with WNS.

But with WNS surfacing only 11 miles away from the state’s New
York border, it now seems that it might just be a matter of time,
he added. That’s why the Game Commission is gearing up to try to
identify the progression of WNS and shed further light on how this
mysterious disorder kills bats.

This spring, New York and New England sustained terrible bat
losses, according to Turner. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has
projected tens of thousands of bats may be lost to WNS in New York
and New England in 2008,” he said. “Should Pennsylvania – with more
than 4,000 mines and 1,000 caves – become the next hotbed, we could
sustain even larger losses.”

WNS was first documented in New York in late 2006. Its discovery
occurred during routine surveys counting endangered Indiana bats, a
large portion of which had inexplicably disappeared from one
hibernaculum. Wildlife officials then noticed a strange white
fungus on the muzzles of the bats still remaining – hence the
syndrome’s name.

The problem worsened in 2007 as officials investigated reports
of bats flying from hibernacula in mid-winter and in broad
daylight, when they were supposed to be hibernating. Some bats bore
no sign of disease or sickness, but were underweight and leaving
their wintering quarters, which is abnormal. Others had white
fungus around their noses and/or on their ears and wings.

All affected states and the USFWS have sent afflicted bats to
laboratories throughout the United States. This effort includes
several bats from Barton Cave on Forbes State Forest in Fayette
County and Hartman Mine, because some white fungus was found on
otherwise apparently healthy bats in recent Game Commission
fieldwork.

But lab-work has yet to shed further light on anything. As Susi
von Oettingen, a USFWS endangered species biologist, said recently
about WNS, “We have no clue what it is right now and it doesn’t
look like we’re going to find out anytime soon. Nothing like this
has been documented in bat populations anywhere else in the world
to this extent.”

It remains unclear whether the fungus is killing bats, an
up-until-now unrecognized byproduct of cave hibernation, or a
secondary opportunist attacking already weakened bats. Currently,
the best WNS indicators are mass mortality, early emergence from
hibernacula and erratic daytime flying.

An associated problem WNS causes in hibernacula occurs when
movement by afflicted bats awakens healthy bats hibernating nearby.
These repeated disturbances may cause healthy bats to draw from
critical fat reserves they need to make it through winter.

When a bat awakens from hibernation, its body temperature rises
from around 45 degrees, to about 100, burning up considerable fat
reserves unnecessarily.

Awakened too often, a bat cannot sustain hibernation, and it
will starve to death foraging for food on a winter landscape.

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