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Wildlife researchers are scrambling to understand a mysterious ailment that?s killing thousands of bats in the Northeast including rare Indiana bats, which are on the endangered species list. Scientists say white-nose syndrome has been found in New York, in Vermont, and now in Massachusetts. They?re comparing the die-off to colony collapse disorder, which has ravaged America?s honeybees.
North Country Public Radio?s Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN: On a snowy winter morning, wildlife biologist Al Hicks is standing outside a cave near Albany, New York. He thinks this site may be infected with white-nose syndrome.
AL HICKS: The worst-case scenario would be that this, whatever it is, has spread from bat to bat and that they can infect a new site.
MANN: Hicks works for New York?s Department of Environmental Conservation. He says more than 10,000 bats have died so far. Some of the animals exhibit a nasty crust of white fungus around their muzzles. Other animals just seem to go crazy, flying around in midwinter when they?re supposed to be tucked away in their warm caves.
HICKS: We have the mortality rates that we?ve seen so far. We potentially could lose them all.
MANN: Hicks means all the bats in the Northeast. These animals, he says, are burning up fat stores in their bodies that are meant to carry them through the winter. In the end, they literally starve to death. No one knows why this is happening. But Hicks says the ailment is spreading from four caves in New York last winter to at least 13 sites now confirmed around the region.
SUSI: We did find dead bats in the snow. We found dead bats hanging on a house nearby.
MANN: Susi von Oettingen is an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On Friday, she confirmed the first contaminated colony in Massachusetts.
OETTINGEN: This case of a disease, of an outbreak like this for an animal, I?ve never professionally come across it with any of the endangered species or rare and declining species that I?ve worked with.
MANN: Von Oettingen says endangered Indiana bats were recovering in the Northeast, a success story that has quickly turned bitter. At least three other species of bats have been affected so far. These animals fill a crucial ecological niche.
OETTINGEN: Bats are voracious predators of insects - in particular, moths and beetles. And if you?re a farmer, you know what moths and beetles can do to your produce.
MANN: Laboratories are racing to analyze tissue samples from sick animals. Other researchers are fanning out, identifying infected caves.
Al Hicks and his team pull on biohazard suits. It?s a precaution to avoid spreading the disease to new caves. But state officials are also taking no chances with human contamination.
BRENDA WOOD: Since you don?t know what the potential pathogen is, I mean, you have to take extra precautions.
MANN: Brenda Wood is an emerging infectious disease fellow with New York?s Department of Health. There?s no evidence that humans are at risk, she says. But her agency is watching white-nose syndrome closely.
WOOD: They?re interested because the fact that the bats are coming out early means that they can be coming into homes and therefore increasing contacts with humans.
MANN: Head lamps gleaming, Hicks and his team scramble down a raw, crumbling hole. The limestone ceiling showers water. Perched along the cave wall, clinging upside down, are tiny bats the side of field mice.
HICKS: Seven little grounds hanging there - one, two, three, four of them have the white-nose syndrome. So this a new site we hadn?t confirmed.
MANN: The crust of white on the bats? tiny muscles looks like powdered sugar. Hicks? face is hidden by his filter mask, but he shakes his head, obviously disappointed. He reaches up to inspect the first animal.
HICKS: He is dead.
MANN: Hicks admits to being completely baffled. One possibility, he says, is that white-nose syndrome is some kind of bacteria or parasite that?s being spread by humans. The federal government is urging amateur cavers to stay out of underground sites across the entire Northeast.
Back on the surface, Hicks strips off his mask and biohazard suit. He looks exhausted. This entire colony of bats, he says, will be dead by spring.
HICKS: They?re not going to make it. They?re history.
MANN: With the latest outbreaks reported in Massachusetts and Vermont, scientists say hopes that white-nose syndrome can be contained are fading fast.
For NPR News, I?m Brian Mann
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