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Friday, May 14, 2010

Our vanishing bats

Over the past four years, the number of endangered Indiana bats in New York State has plummeted about 50 percent. And that’s the good news.

The populations of other bat species in the state have fallen as much as 90 percent.

State biologist Al Hicks told the Adirondack Park Agency on Thursday that three species—the little brown, northern, and eastern pipistrelle bats—could be extirpated in the Northeast within a few decades.

A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome. Photo by Larry Master.

A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome. Photo by Larry Master.

“Extinctions are not out of the question here,” Hicks said.

The bats are dying from white-nose syndrome. The disease’s name comes from the white fungus that appears on the animals’ snouts and wings. Infected bats often use up their fat reserves during hibernation and die of starvation. Many will leave caves in winter in a desperate search for food, but the insects they depend on for survival cannot be found at that time of year.

White-nose syndrome was first documented in 2008, when state scientists found thousands of dead bats in a cave south of Albany. They now think the disease originated in Howe Caverns, a commercial cave in Schoharie County. Photos taken at the cave in 2006 showed bats with the white fungus. In recent years, the disease has spread throughout New England, as far south as Kentucky, and as far west as Missouri.

Before the onslaught of white-nose syndrome, New York boasted the country’s third-largest population of Indiana bats, which are on the federal list of endangered species. Hicks put the population at 54,000. This paled in comparison to the number of little brown bats, the most common of the state’s bat species. One cave in the Adirondacks once harbored 200,000 little browns each winter. The Indiana bat, however, seems to be more resistant to the disease.

“There is a chance that the Indiana bat will be the most common bat in New York State, not because it’s doing well, but because it’s not dying out as much,” Hicks said.

When white-nose syndrome was first discovered, Hicks sent out pictures of infected animals to bat scientists around the country. None had ever seen anything like it. However, European scientists had. Apparently, bats in Europe have been living with white-nose syndrome for years, but for some reason it is not as lethal there.

Hicks said it’s possible that European bats have developed a resistance to the disease. Over time, he said, the same could happen here. If not, the die-offs will likely continue.

Phil Brown

Contributor Phil Brown was editor of the Adirondack Explorer from 1999-2018. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important.

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5 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    This is really terrible. I read an ADE story that said there was a cave somewhere in the Adks that had a count of 185,000 bats in 2000 (one of the largest colonies ever in NY). Last year it was 2000. That is a 99% decrease.

    I have a Silver Haired bat colony (very small number) that are still coming back each year to my camp. These migratory species (Red bats included) maybe are not being affected. But they make up a very small percentage of the overall bat population.

    I would hope that in these interbred colonies that we might quickly see resistant strains pop up. But then it will take some time to recolonize. I would hate to interfere, but I wonder if we could introduce some resistant bats to the caves to speed the process. We would probably just introduce another invasive if we try that!

  2. Johio says:

    I would hope that in these interbred colonies that we might quickly see resistant strains pop up. But then it will take some time to recolonize. I would hate to interfere, but I wonder if we could introduce some resistant bats to the caves to speed the process. We would probably just introduce another invasive if we try that!
    +1

  3. Paul says:

    What does “+1” mean?

  4. Elizabeth Norman says:

    It appears that winter takes it toll due to lack of food. The winters are harsh here for humans let alone small creatures as bats. The insects all go in the winter that is their main staple. I read that one bat can eat up a 1000 insects in one night. This is a help in many ways for plant life and hikers–with mesquito problems and other bug nuisances. That is their work from what I know. Starved, hungary cold long winter months, it is odd they are in the north at all but their small systems must not be developed enough to be aware of the danger for themselves something not imbred. Like with birds many still fly south don’t they when the cold months come?To bad the Indiana bats couldn’t get in on that idea :0)

  5. Elizabeth Norman says:

    Being a retired nurse, it came to me these bat caves should be disinfected. There is probably some company that could do this. I know even bee hives must be medicated in the winter to prevent illness in the hives. It is too bad that a supply of insects could not be given to the bats which are hybernating for the winter of course this would cause them to come out of hypernation if they had a supply of insects everyday. Perhaps just medicate and clean the caves. I notice our bird feeder quickly contains a white residue if not cleaned often using gloves of course. The bats have on them a stigma and one does not care for bats as perhaps bees and birds can be cared for which is cleaning their home area and sanitizing it. Does anyone know of a company that would do this cleaning and sanitizing and if this is a reasonable thought?

    :0) Also someone to pay for the work. What to do at this point?? Peace and love.galebee class l968 New Hartford High school :0) and nurising school as well :00

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