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Bat die-off could have disastrous effect on ecology

Some of the most common bat species in the Northeast are on the verge of extinction.

That's the grim assessment from wildlife biologist Jenny Dickson as White-Nose Syndrome continues into its fourth year of spreading its deadly reach further into hibernating bat populations. No sign of letup or antidote is in sight.

The speed with which the disease is decimating bat populations that once numbered in the millions is without comparison to any other wildlife decline in recent memory, Dickson said, and is likely to cause ecological changes that could affect agriculture, forestry and other wildlife.

"We're rapidly getting to the point of no return," Dickson, of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said during a news conference Tuesday. "Some of these species will go locally extinct this decade. This is an unprecedented decline in a wildlife population."

Using words like "catastrophic" and "massive die-off," Dickson described how the fungal disease has spread into Canada. It was reported for the first time Monday in bats emerging from caves in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park and for the first time west of the Mississippi River, in Missouri. The syndrome is now documented in 11 states and two Canadian provinces.

This winter, Connecticut DEP wildlife biologists again surveyed caves and abandoned mines where bats hibernate. Three years ago, one of these sites housed 3,300 bats, but this winter included fewer than a dozen, Dickson said. All but one of the survivors had the telltale white fuzzy fungus on their noses and other parts of their bodies, she said. The story was similar at the other caves that were visited.

"White-Nose Syndrome continues to kill some of our most common backyard bats, including the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tricolored bat, but has spread to other species, too," Dickson said.

Dickson noted that bats reproduce relatively slowly - one pup per year - and live long lives of 15 years or more, and would be slow to rebuild. Scientists are baffled about what if anything can be done, she added, other than trying to arrest the spread west, then eventually reintroducing fungus-free bats back into the eastern states.

Dickson asked for the public's help in reporting to the DEP any summer bat colonies that may be roosting in barns, church bell towers, cliffsides or elsewhere. People should note any changes in the numbers of bats they see compared to previous years, or if bat populations that have historically come to a particular site do not return.

All this means that in the summer, when bats would normally eat tons of moths, beetles and other flying insects that damage vegetable and fruit crops and trees, the pests will go unchecked. In addition to the potential economic impacts on agriculture and forestry, the severe decline in bats "will have a major impact on the biodiversity and ecosystems throughout the U.S. and Canada for decades to come," Dickson said.

Bats also consume mosquitoes, although experts say they are not a major part of bats' diet.

The fungus, identified as Geomyces destructans, dwells in cold, damp environments and is genetically similar to a European fungus, research has shown. It is unclear exactly how the fungus came to this country - although scientists believe humans probably carried it to the caves somehow - or how it kills the bats. It has been observed that bats with the disease have irregular sleep patterns and use their fat reserves before winter ends, while they are still supposed to be hibernating. White-Nose infected bats are likely to be thin and may have holes in their wings "and bats that can't fly can't feed," Dickson said.

Diana Weaver, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's New England Office, said the agency is considering a petition to extend endangered species protection to two bat species that were already rare before the disease, the small-footed bat and the northern long-eared bat. The emergency petition, filed in January by the Center for Biological Diversity, also asked that all bat caves under federal control be closed.

"This is the worst wildlife catastrophe the country has seen since the extinction of the passenger pigeon," said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate with the nonprofit center. "Without aggressive efforts to secure their habitat and stem further losses from all causes, including probable human transmission of the new bat disease, these bats may soon join the sad list of American species we know only from textbooks and museums."

In Europe, where research is also taking place, a similar fungus does not seem to have a major negative effect on bat species, Dickson said.

What to do:

People are asked to call the DEP at (860) 675-8130 with any information about summer bat colonies, or e-mail the information to Christina Kocer, wildlife technician, at: christina.kocer@ct.gov.

For information on

White-Nose Syndrome, visit: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/white_nose.html

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