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viernes, diciembre 18, 2009

Dying Bats: More Bad, Frightening News

When I first moved to Columbia County, New York, about 25 miles southeast of Albany, in the foothills of the Berkshires, evening sunsets were spectacular. And there were dozens of bats zooming through the dim light feasting on insects. There were two primary kinds of bats: big brown bats ones and little brown bats. I considered putting up a bat house, but never did. The bats seemed to be thriving quite well without one, thank you. But in the summer of 2007 I began to notice that there were fewer bats. And in summer, 2008 even fewer. And this past summer hardly any. What I was witnessing was the bat population dying out. It was being ravaged by disease.

Today, the Times Union brought the details of this bad news about the bats:

Since the appearance of a mysterious malady more than two years ago in Albany County caves, bat populations have been reduced by more than 90 percent in caves across three states, according to counts released Wednesday by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The decline has been linked to a fungal condition called white nose syndrome, named for the white, fuzzy fungus found on the faces of afflicted bats. So far, there is no way to stop the spread of the illness, which leaves bats with too little body fat to survive winter hibernation.

In 23 caves surveyed -- four in Vermont and Massachusetts, the rest in Albany and Schoharie counties -- about 4,800 bats were found last winter. That is down from more than 55,000 bats in those same caves before the disease outbreak.

The figures include little brown bats, big brown bats and Indiana bats -- the last an endangered species.

According to Al Hicks, a Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologist, "These numbers are about as bad as anyone could imagine. It injects a sense of urgency to the matter. We don't have a lot of years to figure this out. If things continue at this rate, we will be in trouble."

Nobody, it seems, knows what is causing the problem. There are theories, of course:

"Right now, this fungus looks like an invasive (species) that was introduced. It was not found previously anywhere in North America, and was somehow introduced here from another location. It is something that our bats never had to deal with before."

And it's killing them. Almost all of them.

I wrote about this pandemic about 2 years ago. In February, 2008, I wrote:

Bloomberg reported yesterday that bats in New York and Vermont are dying:
Thousands of bats are dying from an unknown illness in the northeastern U.S. at a rate that could cause extinction, New York state wildlife officials said.

At eight caves in New York and one in Vermont, scientists have seen bat populations plummet over two years. Most bats hibernate in the same cave every winter, keeping annual counts consistent. A cave that had 1,300 bats in January 2006 had 470 bats last year. It recently sheltered just 38.

At another cave, more than 90 percent of about 15,500 bats have died since 2005, and two-thirds that remain now sleep near the cave's entrance, where conditions are less hospitable. Scientists don't know what's causing the deaths, and biologists wearing sanitary clothing and respirators to prevent the spread of disease are collecting the dead for testing as part of a state and U.S. effort.

Apparently, nobody knows what's killing the bats.
Some bats in the die-off have a white fungus encircling their noses. Most living bats now are underweight, too thin to make it through the winter, Hicks said. They choose their hibernating spots based on weight. Colder resting spots, like the ones near the entrance help energy reserves last longer.

``These guys are hibernating in places you never see healthy bats hibernating,'' Hicks said.

When they're not hibernating, healthy bats eat about half their weight in bugs every night, including mosquitoes, grasshoppers, locusts and moths that can spread disease among humans and devastate crops.

Bat populations are vulnerable to disease during hibernation as they congregate in large numbers in caves, sometimes packed so densely that it's difficult to see the cavern wall behind them. In warmer months, bats migrate hundreds of miles to their summer homes, so a new disease could rapidly spread across the region, Hicks said.

Whatever it is that is killing these bats, it hasn't been remedied. And the loss of these bats is devastating not only for the bats themselves but also for the rest of the ecological fabric that depends on the bats. This is indeed frightening news. One can only hope that a solution is found before much longer.

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