Four winters after its discovery near Albany, New York, White-nose Syndrome – a still-mysterious but deadly threat to American bats – has spread across New Jersey and Pennsylvania and into West Virginia.
West Virginia now reports WNS at multiple caves. If this is confirmed, BCI Founder Merlin Tuttle said, “America’s most important remaining hibernacula for endangered Indiana myotis and gray myotis could be threatened within two years or less. Failure to find a solution could prove devastating.”
Also, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department cites initial reports, as yet unconfirmed, that WNS may have been found among bats at a mine in northwestern New Hampshire.
White-nose Syndrome, with mortality rates exceeding 90 percent at some hibernation sites, has killed hundreds of thousands of hibernating bats in the northeastern United States. Scientists do not know the cause, although researchers are trying desperately to solve this lethal puzzle. BCI’s WNS Emergency Response Fund has provided more than $65,000 so far to help finance 10 vital research projects.
A white fungus is found on the faces of many affected bats. The fungus has been identified, but it remains unclear whether it is a cause of the ailment or one of its symptoms.
Alan Hicks of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, whose team originally discovered the syndrome, said that the way WNS is spreading strongly suggests a disease-causing organism of some kind, possibly the fungus. He said “transmission tests” are being conducted at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, that should answer that question, “provided they are able to sufficiently match conditions in these caves. We expect those results in the next month or so.” BCI is helping to fund this critical study.
WNS was first seen in a single New York cave in the winter of 2005-06 and was found in four additional nearby sites the following winter. By 2007-08, it had spread throughout the state and into Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Now it has spread much farther.
Mick Valent, principal zoologist for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife,
reports at least hundreds of confirmed bat deaths at three abandoned mines located a few miles apart in eastern New Jersey. Among them is the state’s largest hibernation site – Hibernia Cave, where BCI helped build a bat-friendly gate in 1994. Some 30,000 bats, mostly little brown myotis but also some Indiana myotis, now hibernate there.
No bat kills were confirmed in Pennsylvania, but the state Game Commission notes that biologists DeeAnn Reeder of Bucknell University and Greg Turner of the commission found bats with fungus-covered faces in an old iron mine in Mifflin County. When they netted bats at the site last summer, they found no obvious problems, although some bats had white spots on their wings. “What the white spots represent is still unclear,” Turner said, “but researchers believe they may be early signs of WNS.”
In mid-December, the hibernating bats at the mine revealed no problems. But on December 20, some bats showed signs of the fungus and a few had moved closer to the mine entrance, an abnormal shift during hibernation and a “red flag” for the biologists. By January 5, about 45 percent of the hibernating population had relocated toward the entrance. Something obviously is going astray at the mine, but exactly what that might be is not yet clear.