When Jonathan Storm and Justin Boyles journeyed to New York to investigate what is killing entire colonies of bats, the two Indiana State University doctoral students found bats in crisis.
Last year at four caves near Albany, N.Y., more than 10,000 bats died from a mysterious disease involving a white fungus growing on some bats’ noses, leading researchers to dub it “white-nose syndrome.”
The mounting death toll stopped last year when spring arrived and the bats left the caves. But the deaths returned with a vengeance after the bats went into hibernation this winter. With 14 known caves infected across New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, scientists estimate as many as 500,000 bats may currently be affected with the syndrome.
“Our only hope at this stage is we’re not too far from the spring thaw,” said Dale Sparks, assistant director of the Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation at Indiana State University.
Storm and Boyles, who are working on doctorates in the ecology and organismal biology department, were selected by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to take part in the research hoping to unravel the mystery of what is leading to the bats’ deaths. Using a thermal imaging camera, Boyles and Storm entered caves in the Catskill Mountains of New York to record the hibernating animals’ body temperatures during several days in February.
“What we expected to find and what the bats were doing are two different things,” said Boyles, who is from Osceola, Mo.
Normally, the men said, when someone enters a cave, the bats’ body temperatures rise, they arouse and they begin flying around the cave. “We couldn’t wake the bats up at all,” Boyles said. “In one cave, we spent 10 hours and never saw a response.”
The bats’ body temperatures though were “fairly normal” for hibernation at about 37 degrees Fahrenheit, they said.
At some caves, bats managed to rouse themselves to hunt food, which is scarce in February. “Probably the more depressing part was seeing all of the bats evacuating the caves,” Boyles said.
“You’d see bats everywhere trying to find food,” Storm, from Earlham, Iowa, added. “There were many dead bats outside the caves. There will likely be more soon as more bats run out of fat reserves and leave the caves to find food.”
What scientists don’t know is whether the fungus itself or some other ailment is killing the bats. Some of the bats have had pneumonia. They all are underweight and some are leaving their caves in attempts to find food.
“The bats are basically starving to death,” said Storm. “They don’t have any fat stores left to make it through winter.”
The two men had recently weighed non-infected bats in Ohio. When they weighed the bats in New York, they weighed less than the smallest bats from Ohio.
While the little brown bat, a common species, has been hit the hardest, another species, the endangered Indiana bat, also has been infected.
But the impact of the bats’ deaths could be felt for centuries to come. “These bats reproduce very, very slowly,” Boyles said. “Whatever happens now, it could take hundreds of years for the populations to bounce back.”
That in turn could impact crops and humans, as bats eat thousands of insects in one night of foraging.
Although the disease has not been found in bats hibernating in Indiana, Boyles, Sparks and Storm urged spelunkers to take precautions after leaving a cave by washing their gear with bleach or rubbing alcohol.
“It’s unlikely a virus would spread from cave to cave, as many viruses die quickly when exposed to the environment,” Sparks said. “Fungal spores, however, could be carried to another place.”
The Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation has offered to collect donations and other funding to help in fighting the disease, said John Whitaker, center director.
Cite This Page: