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Dead of Winter

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For biologist DeeAnn Reeder, it's been a long seven days.

In the past week, she says, "We now have hundreds, if not thousands, of bats dying in Pennsylvania." To make matters worse, "It's really difficult to figure out what's happening."

Earlier this year, scientists announced that white-nose syndrome -- an unexplained New England bat plague -- had moved into Pennsylvania. Now, the state Game Commission has confirmed the first bat fatalities in the state. "Several hundred little brown bats are dead from White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) in Lackawanna County," the agency reported in a Feb. 4 release.

"We got up there and there were hundreds of dead bats laying outside the [mine's] entrance," says the Game Commission's Greg Turner. "It looks pretty bad."

The syndrome gets its name from a white fungus that typically starts growing on the bats' muzzles and wings. Whether the fungus is the cause of death, or simply a symptom of an underlying problem, is up for debate. But it has already killed tens of thousands of bats in Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. In some caves, it has wiped out as much as 90 percent of bat colonies.

"If you ask me on a really pessimistic day," Reeder says, "I might say that we won't have any bats in Pennsylvania in five years."

Last year, state wildlife experts began monitoring a number of possible white-nose sites, anticipating that the disorder was moving south (see City Paper, "Broken Bats," Nov. 5, 2008). Reeder, a Bucknell University assistant professor, and Turner discovered Pennsylvania's first known case of white-nose in an iron mine in Mifflin County in December.

Until the Lackawanna deaths, however, there had been no bat fatalities associated with the condition in Pennsylvania. (On Feb. 9, Turner said that there have been "a few bats found floating in the water" in Mifflin, and "It looks like [that site's] about to break," as well. "It's probably a matter of a couple weeks.")

Scientists have tracked the spread of the disease for the past two years, and Reeder says, "We've been waiting for this." Even so, "I'm massively sleep-deprived at the moment," she says. "We're all just really hustling."

Part of the problem is that the syndrome has frustrated researchers' attempts to label it.

"The evidence that the fungus is in some way the primary cause seems to grow slowly," says Joe Okoniewski, from New York's Department of Conservation. Still, "The exact nature of what's going on is still uncertain."

Okoniewski co-authored an article for the journal Science last year that categorized the fungi associated with white-nose, but the mechanism of death remains mysterious. It's possible, for example, that the bats are contracting some immune system-attacking virus -- like HIV in humans -- which makes them more susceptible to other infections.

And "the big question," says Elizabeth Buckles, an assistant professor of pathology at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, is: Why is this fungus appearing now?

Researchers are comparing changes in the bats with changes in the environment and changes in fungi. While some explanations are likelier than others, Buckles says, "I wouldn't say that we've 100 percent ruled out anything."

Researchers are almost certain, however, that white-nose poses no threat to humans. Okoniewski points out that the fungus only grows at very low temperatures and would have trouble developing at human body temperature.

Reeder, Turner and others are monitoring Pennsylvania's bats to see how and where white-nose progresses over the winter. Infected bats have been known to wake up in the middle of hibernation season and leave their caves. They fly around searching for food that is scarce in winter, and eventually starve to death.

Reeder encourages citizens to report any unusual bat activity -- like flying during daytime -- to state officials. The Lackawanna deaths were first reported by a resident, she notes.

But many other residents are slow to appreciate the threat, she says. "A lot of people ask me, 'So what?'"

The danger, Reeder warns, is that bats "play a huge role in the ecosystem." If they disappear, "insect populations will climb. ... There might be some human health issues associated with that."

Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Greg Turner discovers some of the dead bats outside an abandoned coal near Carbondale. - PHOTO BY KEVIN WENNER
  • Photo by Kevin Wenner
  • Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Greg Turner discovers some of the dead bats outside an abandoned coal near Carbondale.

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