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By Julia Ferrante
LEWISBURG, Pa. – A Bucknell University biologist and her state game commission research partner confirmed this week something they feared for more than a year: Bats with the mysterious white-nose syndrome are dying in large numbers in Pennsylvania.
"What we found was really dramatic," said DeeAnn Reeder, an ecophysiologist and assistant professor of biology at Bucknell. "There were just hundreds of dead bats on the snow outside these caves. As white-nose has marched across from New York to Pennsylvania, we expected this would happen, but to all of a sudden see this mass mortality is just sickening."
Reeder and Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Greg Turner discovered white-nose syndrome in the state in December, during a visit to a Mifflin County cave. A handful of the bats hibernating for winter had the tell-tale white fungus found on dying bats in New York and Vermont.
Reeder is working with state and federal officials and other academic researchers to find out more about the syndrome, which was discovered in 2006 among a dying population of bats in New York. The multi-state research effort began during a June conference on white-nose syndrome in Albany. Scientists don’t know what is causing bats to die or if a disease agent is involved. They surmise the syndrome may have something to do with hibernation patterns or changes in energy balance, making it more difficult for bats to survive.
Resident provided tip
The latest discovery, in Lakawanna County, came after a resident notified a state official that bats were flying erratically outside a coal mine where large numbers of bats are known to hibernate. State officials are asking Pennsylvania residents to contact the game commission if they see such unusual behavior. They can submit information at a Game Commission website or by calling their local regional Game Commission office.
"There are people who have mines and caves on their property that we don't know about," Reeder said. "This highlights the important role the public can play in providing information about white-nose syndrome. If they see bats flying at this time of year, it's bad – period."
One piece of good news is that white-nose does not appear to have spread universally through the bat population, Reeder said. Some are "clean," leading researchers to question whether certain conditions make bats more susceptible.
"We're wondering if it is the site or the bats. Are there some things like sites being really dry that prevent it? There's a little bit of hope where maybe bats are not spreading it to each other."
Early discovery offers hope
Researchers also are hoping that because they have identified white-nose syndrome in the early stages in Pennsylvania, they will be able to learn how the condition spreads through bat populations and hopefully gain a better understanding of that process, Reeder said.
Cases of white-nose syndrome have been found in bats in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont, and possibly West Virginia. Bats with the condition often are spotted flying erratically during the day and in cold temperatures, weeks before they normally emerge from hibernation. Not all of the infected bats have visible white fungus. Other symptoms include extreme weight loss, depleted fat reserves or the inability to arouse from hibernation.
Bats are integral to the ecosystem, because they eat insects -- sometimes in quantities equaling their own body weight in one day. One of the concerns is that a diminishing population of bats will cause insect populations to proliferate, putting crops at risk.
Reeder and a team of researchers have received a $50,000 grant from the Wildlife Management Institute to study whether alternations in bat hibernation patterns are contributing to white-nose syndrome. About 600 bats in Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Vermont, Kentucky and possibly New Hampshire and West Virginia were tagged with transmitters that collect body temperature readings during hibernation. Data collection is ongoing.
At the same time, a group of little brown bats -- some healthy and some possibly affected by white-nose syndrome -- are being observed in Reeder’s laboratory at Bucknell to see how hibernation influences immune function. The immune function studies are funded by a $5,883 grant from Bat Conservation International.
Reeder also has been awarded a separate, $68,687 grant from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to further study immune function in white nose bats.
Researchers at a number of institutions including Bucknell, Cornell University, Boston University and Fordham University, along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and state agencies including the Pennsylvania Game Commission, are providing matching funds or donating time and equipment to study various aspects of white-nose syndrome.
Contact: Division of Communications
Watch a video about white-nose snydrome on the Game Commisson website.
Game Commission press release