MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Now we're going to take a trip deep underground to a cave where bats hibernate. In the Northeast, the endangered India bat is one of many bat species in trouble. A mysterious disease named for one of its symptoms, white-nose syndrome, has been killing off bat populations. In New York State alone, environmental officials estimate hundreds of thousands of bats, a large majority, may have the disease. Scientists are trying to identify the infected bats using thermal imaging cameras, and producer Jim Metzner has been training scientists to make audio recordings of their field research. Among those scientists are some biologists in New York's Ulster Country. They're trying to get to the bottom of white-nose syndrome in some deep, dark places.
Mr. ALAN HICKS (Wildlife Biologist, New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation): This mine, it's, I think, the seventh largest Indiana bat site in the country. Oh, it's a 120 feet down to the bottom, and then we've got to go 20, 30 yards to the left before you get into any bats.
Keep a hold of this end. As you guys start getting down there - do you want to go two at a time? We've got two lines, if you want to.
My name is Alan Hicks. I'm a wildlife biologist with New York States' Department of Environmental Conservation. I started working on bats in New York State in 1979, and have been the bat specialist for the endangered species program ever since. Every two years, biologists like myself across the eastern US go into all the caves and mines that have Indiana bats, and they count them. And so we've had this trend information since the '80s. Just in the last few years, that trend had turned around and is going up again, and everybody was very excited about it, until last year. We were doing one of our surveys, and we found literally thousands of dead animals laying in the cave. And all of the 700 Indiana bats that had been there since the 1930's - there's always been Indiana bats in every winter survey that, even the early researchers had done - they're gone. And that caused us to start looking in other sites in the area, and we found a total of four places that had this - whatever their problem was. There were affected sites in that we found dead animals. And that was last year. We started again this year to survey even more closely. We visited sites that, last year, were clean. And now they are affected as well.
Unidentified Man #1: This is the most difficult part right here. Is that all (unintelligible) where you are? That stuff below you?
Unidentified Man #2: I'm not here.
Mr. JUSTIN BOYLE (Ph.D. Student, Indiana State University): Justin Boyle, Ph.D. student at Indiana State University. What we're trying to do today is get pictures, thermal images, of bats as they hibernate. So we're going to try to get into this mine as quietly as we can. We have thermal imaging equipment. We're going to take pictures of clusters of a hibernating bats, trying to see what temperature they're hibernating at compared to the rocks where they're hibernating on.
Mr. HICKS: Forty five and 46, and there's one individual with a white nose right in the middle.
(Soundbite of rustling)
Mr. HICKS: Here, here. Hold up. Stop right there while I get this guy.
Mr. BOYLE: In this specific case, we're actually here because of this fungus, the white-nose syndrome. One of the ideas that we've - that has been proposed by several people is that these bats have a lowered immunity response because of their hibernating. One of the ways they might be able to avoid that is to warm up a little bit, which would possibly increase their immunity response. We don't actually know that.
So what we're doing today is trying to take thermal images to see if the infected bats are, in fact, warmer than the uninfected bats.
Mr. HICKS: Forty seven, 48...
Mr. BOYLE: We're hoping to have some practical application with this, if we can't find the infected bats using thermal energy. If we could find the bats are a little bit warmer and they are infected, we might be able to remove those from the population or to help avoid the spread of those individuals.
Mr. HICKS: Forty nine, 50. It is amazingly cold down here for these guys. I don't think they want to come out of hibernation. Four...
Mr. BOYLE: There were - in a section we were in, there were probably 1,500 to 2,000 bats, a few fairly good sized clusters. They were behaving a little oddly this trip. They didn't actually wake up when we were in there. And we were in there for almost two hours, right underneath them, talking and working, and there was no response at all. It could be that the bats are out of energy, and they just don't want to wake up, or there could be something else going on. But, at least in my experience, that's an odd behavior.
Mr. HICKS: They're more congregated near the entrance of other caves, mines, and in colder regions than they typically roost. There's something unusual is going on with them. And physically, something's happening to them, and I don't know what that is yet, but we're working on it.
(Soundbite of clicking)
Mr. HICKS: Fifty five, 56, and that individual does have white nose. One does.
NORRIS: Our Science Diary was produced by Jim Metzner. He hosts the public radio show PULSE OF THE PLANET. The clicking and whirring sounds you heard are made by a thermal imaging camera.
You can learn more about white-nose syndrome, and you can watch a video of the infected bats at our Web site, npr.org.