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.
“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.