Scientists Say Bat Disease Likely To Spread

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Scientists are searching the forests of the Northeastern U.S. for bat colonies hit by a disease called white nose syndrome, but they are finding whole forests completely depopulated. Researchers now say the deadly outbreak is expected to reach as far away as Florida and the Midwest.

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And now to an epidemic that is devastating bats. Scientists say white nose syndrome is spreading rapidly in North America. They now fear that the continent's most common bat species could be wiped out in the next few years. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, biologists are still trying to understand basic questions about the epidemic.

BRIAN MANN: Imagine for a moment if one of the most common birds in North America - robins, say, or blue jays - were to suddenly disappear, that's exactly what Brock Fenton at the University of Western Ontario says it's happening to bats.

Dr. BROCK FENTON (Bat Researcher, University of Western Ontario): The brown bat will be extirpated in the Northeast within 10 years. That's, like, unbelievable, right? Because, I mean, those are the bats in everybody's church and cottage.

MANN: Fenton is one of the top bat researchers in the world. On a summer evening, his team is testing bats at a nursery colony in Willsboro, New York.

Unidentified Woman: All right they're number is going to be three, zero…

MANN: Some of the thumb-sized bats are being fixed with radio transmitters.

(Soundbite of beep)

MANN: Two years ago, a fungal disease called white nose syndrome was identified in a handful of caves near Albany, a couple of hours drive from here. The fungus seems to drive the most common species of North American bats crazy, disrupting their delicate pattern of feeding and hibernating and damaging their wings. Scientist hope the epidemic would be limited to the Northeast. But, in the months since, white nose has spread fast, as far away as West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Millions of animals have died and Fenton says, this summer, they're finding whole nesting sites that have been depopulated.

Dr. FENTON: They're so few little brown bats active. I don't see anything to be happy about.

MANN: Researchers fear that white nose will reach vitally important bat colonies in Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee in the next year. Dr. Thomas Kunz, director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, told a congressional panel in June, that the epidemic could spread coast to coast.

Dr. THOMAS KUNZ (Director, Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, Boston University): This is one of the most devastating conditions I have ever observed. We are witnessing one of the most precipitous declines of wildlife in North America.

MANN: What that will mean to the environment is still a complete mystery. But, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that losing bats could cost farmers a billion dollars a year. People think of bats as pests, but Brock Fenton says the truth is exactly the opposite.

Dr. FENTON: So, each of these bats is eating half its body weight in insects every night. (unintelligible) pregnancy, a lactating female, she's eating her own body weight in insects every night. So, that's a hell of a lot of insects.

MANN: Scientists have fanned out through the infected area, trying to understand and hopefully slow the spread of white nose.

(Soundbite of door opening)

MANN: On a hot summer day Fenton drags himself through a tiny hatchway, into the broiling attic of Willsboro's Methodist church.

Dr. FENTON: See the formation's growing? Made from crystallized bat urine, we call them pisscicles(ph). The name tells you everything you needed to know about it.

MANN: Fenton and his graduate students wade through calf-deep bat dung. They dangle precariously from the rafters, snagging furious, little brown bats and stuffing them in paper bags.

(Soundbite of tapping)

MANN: The work here is meant to answer a big question. Does white nose syndrome only spread in caves contaminated with the fungus spores, or did it spread readily from bat to bat in the summer colonies?

Dr. FENTON: We don't have the answer to that.

MANN: Which means they still don't know for sure how far or fast the epidemic will travel. This kind of research has been hampered by what Fenton and others say is a desperate lack of funding. State and federal agencies, grappling with the disease, have seen their budgets slashed in recent years. At the congressional hearing in June, Marvin Moriarty, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said his agency had spent only around $5 million on white nose syndrome nationwide. That drew this response from Representative Madeleine Bordallo.

Representative MADELEINE BORDALLO (Democrat, Guam): To address an issue that could be - have national implications…

Mr. MARVIN MORIARTY (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): Exactly.

Rep. BORDALLO: …I think is a drop on the bucket.

Mr. MORIARTY: It is.

MANN: State and federal agencies have closed caves to human traffic, as far away as Ohio and Tennessee, in an effort to stop accidental transmission of white nose spores. Scientists have also begun trying to identify isolated bat colonies on islands and in remote mountain valleys that might survive a mass extinction.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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