RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Halloween is a time to celebrate those creatures of the night who send a thrill of fright down our spines, bats. But in the northeastern US, bats with a strange ailment are dying by the thousands. It's called white-nose syndrome. Yesterday, scientists announced what more they've learned about it. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES: Alan Hicks from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation alerted the world to white-nose syndrome almost two years ago. He went looking for it again this week along with reporter Brian Mann from North Country Public Radio in an abandoned iron mine near Port Henry, New York. The bats here are just settling in for the winter, squealing softly. Hicks collects a few bats and drops them into paper lunch bags. He checks for the mark of the epidemic, white fuzz on their noses. Good news, there's no sign of it. Whispering softly to avoid disturbing the bats, Hicks says in some other caves near here they're getting wiped out completely.

Mr. ALAN HICKS (New York Department of Environmental Conservation): Don't be surprised if many of the sites we visited last year aren't at zero or very near zero this winter.

CHARLES: About a year ago, Hicks collected bats with this white-nose syndrome and took them to Melissa Behr, a specialist on animal diseases at the New York Department of Health. But she couldn't figure out what the problem was.

Ms. MELISSA BEHR (New York Department of Health): He would bring a bunch of bats back and we would triage them over the course of the evening and I was wondering where the white stuff had gone.

CHARLES: The white material, apparently a fungus, was so fragile it disappeared at the slightest touch. So Behr moved her operation close to the bats, inside two abandoned mines.

Ms. BEHR: I got so I could actually grab a little bat, stabilize his little head, grab the fungus and put it on a slide.

CHARLES: The slides went under a microscope. She took pictures and sent them to lots of people including David Blehert with the US Geological Survey in Madison, Wisconsin. Blehert runs a diagnostic laboratory there.

Mr. DAVID BLEHERT (US Geological Survey in Madison, Wisconsin): The mission of my lab suddenly became, what is this white stuff?

CHARLES: No one had ever seen a fungus that looked like this one. But Blehert and his colleagues retrieved sections of its genetic code and found it resembled DNA in a family of fungi called Geomyces. These fungi usually live in cold places, for instance in Antarctica. The scientists found exactly the same fungus on bats from all the caves and they found it all over the bats' skin, including their wings and ears. Blehert can't yet say for certain that the fungus is killing the bats.

Mr. BLEHERT: Fungi usually don't kill otherwise healthy animals all on their own.

CHARLES: But bats with white-nose syndrome are starving. Blehert says maybe the infection makes a bat wake up too often during hibernation so it burns up its reserves of fat too quickly. The scientist reported their discovery in this week's issue of the journal Science. Now that they have a sample of the fungus' genetic code, they can test for it in other places. They want to know where it came from because that might provide a clue to how the epidemic started. They think right now that something, maybe a person, maybe an animal carried a trace of this fungus into Howes Cave in upstate New York, 30 miles west of Albany. That's where someone took the first picture of a white-nosed bat three years ago. The following year, Blehert says, bats were dying in five caves, all within 10 miles of Howes Cave.

Mr. BLEHERT: And by last winter, '07-'08, it was present at 33 sites out to about a 210-kilometer radius.

CHARLES: In the two sites, the scientists have monitored most closely, 78 and 97 percent of the bats have died. Nobody knows where the plague will end. Happy Halloween! Dan Charles, NPR News Washington.

MONTAGNE: And for details on the ailing bats, you can swoop in to npr.org. This is NPR News.

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