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Ninety-eight percent of cave-hibernating bats have died in Pennsylvania, say biologists

Monday, April 15, 2013 by: Jonathan Benson, staff writer
Tags: bats, white-nose syndrome, die-off

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(NaturalNews) They serve a critical role in pollinating crops, killing insects, and fertilizing soil, but their presence throughout the state of Pennsylvania is in a disastrously serious decline. According to a new report by PhillyBurbs.com, 99.99 percent of bats living in Pennsylvania's second largest bat habitat were recently discovered to be dead, and a cohort of biologists currently studying the issue estimates that a shocking 98 percent of bats living throughout the entire state of Pennsylvania are now dead as well.

For many generations, tens of thousands of bats have made their home at an old abandoned iron ore mine in the Upper Bucks area of Central Pennsylvania. At least six different bat species resided in the mine, which has long been a key hibernation spot for bats during the cold winter months. But a recent inspection of the mine revealed that a mere handful of the approximately 10,000 bats that were believed to have lived there previously are now gone, and most of the few remaining bats are ill with a disease that will likely kill them.

It is known officially as white-nose syndrome, and experts are not entirely sure how or from where it emerged. But it causes a white fungus to form around the noses of infected bats, and eventually causes them to lose the necessary fat they need on their bodies to survive. In the end, white-nose syndrome causes bats to die of starvation, a phenomenon that has been observed all across the Northeast.

"Going to places where there used to be tens of thousands of bats hibernating, and then going in and seeing only a few bats -- only a few stragglers left -- that's very difficult," said Pennsylvania Game Commission Biologist Greg Turner to PhillyBurbs.com. Turner has been studying the swift decline of bats throughout Pennsylvania for several years now, and is currently working with a team of scientists to figure out how to address it.

During his recent visit to the mine, which is located in Durham, Turner found only three surviving species of bats among 23 living bats. Eighteen of them were determined to be little brown bats, and half of these were observed to have the strange white fungus around their noses. Many of these same bats were also seen to be crowding around the entrance of the mine, another indication that they are also infected with the disease.

White-nose syndrome has also been observed in a cave in Alabama, according to a recent Reuters report. The Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge near Huntsville currently houses about 1.6 million protected gray bats, which are an endangered species, but experts worry that because the fungus has now been detected there, the "single most significant hibernating area in the world for the species" may soon become decimated as well.

Loss of bats means influx of insects

Bats are often referred to as the "farmer's friend" because they spend much of their time during the spring and summer months feeding on insects, many of which harm crops. A single bat, according to PhillyBurbs.com, can consume up to 900,000 insects per year, which means bats also help protect humans against diseases like West Nile virus by eating the mosquitoes and other insects that spread them.

Without bats, in other words, there will be no predator to keep the insect population in check, which means summers will be extremely buggy, especially in wet and wooded areas of the country like Pennsylvania.

"White-nose syndrome is arguably the most devastating wildlife disease we've faced," says Michael T. Rains, Director of the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station.

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