By Julia Ferrante
LEWISBURG, Pa. – A week before Christmas, DeeAnn Reeder and her colleague Greg Turner made a bitter-sweet discovery in a cave in Mifflin County. A handful of bats hibernating for winter had the tell-tale sign of white-nose syndrome, a mysterious condition killing off colonies in the northeast. || Related stories: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, The Morning Call
The discovery of the white fungus, which tests preliminarily indicate is the same fungus found on dying bats in New York and Vermont, confirmed what state, federal and academic researchers have suspected would happen: White-nose syndrome has arrived in Pennsylvania.
"It is pretty clear that we now have classic early stage white-nose syndrome in Pennsylvania," said Reeder, an ecophysiologist and assistant professor of biology at Bucknell University.
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 was launched during a June conference on white-nose syndrome in Albany. Scientists don’t know what is causing bats to die or even 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.
Ahead of the game
The good news is that researchers now will be able to study the condition as it spreads through bat populations and hopefully gain a better understanding of that process, Reeder said.
"We have a unique position in Pennsylvania of being able to start from the beginning," Reeder said.
Reeder and Turner, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Wildlife Diversity Section, will be able to track the march of white nose syndrome across the state and study the biology of affected bats as the disorder progresses.
"Other states have been in the unfortunate position of playing catch up whereas we have the ability to more fully study how, when and why white nose affects bats," Turner said.
A large number of bats in New York have been found dead or starving, 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. Cases also were found in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont. Last winter, some bats in Pennsylvania were found with suspicious fungi growing on them, but it was not known if the condition had taken hold here.
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, with results due in several months. Preliminary results show the bats are warming up -- or temporarily coming out of hibernation -- more frequently than normal.
"It looks like before they die, they are warming up even more frequently, and some are dying as they warm up," she said.
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 last week was awarded a separate, $68,687 grant from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to further study immune function in white nose bats. Of fundamental interest is whether white-nose bats are simply dying because they run out of fat reserves during hibernation, or whether they are truly sick -- as indexed by immune activity.
Jerry Feaser of the Pennsylvania Game Commission said researchers hope to learn more about white-nose syndrome before it fully takes hold in the state.
"We have the bats with the white stuff on them," he said. "What we don't have is the bat die-off. We don't have the exodus of bats leaving in mass numbers from hibernation."
Some bats are moving closer to the entrance of caves, where it is colder, Reeder said, but researchers do not yet know why.
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.
Read the Pennsylvania Game Commission news release.
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