"White Nose Syndrome," a mysterious, new and deadly disease, is killing thousands of bats in New York, Vermont and possibly elsewhere. The endangered Indiana bat is at risk of extinction, as its numbers plummet in some of its last strongholds in the Northeast.
One of the foremost U.S. bat experts, Alan Hicks of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, called the die-off sudden and "unprecedented."
"Most bat researchers would agree that this is the gravest threat to bats they have ever seen," he said.
Cavers from New Jersey to Vermont are being asked to stop spelunking to avoid spreading the disease inadvertently from cave to cave. Scientists are working to understand the disease before time runs out.
The cause of the disease isn't known, and the "white nose" refers to a ring of fungus that forms on some of the dead bodies. It may or may not have anything to do with the cause of the disease, which kills bats after they've burned fat reserves far ahead of schedule. Typically, bats hibernate in caves and abandoned mines during the winter; the disease appears to spread quickly as huge colonies gather together.
One of the largest colonies of Indiana bats, in Ulster County, N.Y., is now infected. More than half the endangered bats known to live in the state winter in that abandoned mine.
Indiana bats have been declining for decades, and were listed as endangered in 1973. The disease comes at an inopportune time, just months after the Fish and Wildlife Service had released a study that maps out a recovery plan that would have the bat removed from the endangered species list in as little as 20 years. It also appeared in an inopportune place New York, which had one of the few populations of Indiana bat that had been increasing. The colony in at least one cave that had been singled out as a priority for preservation of the species has been decimated by the disease.
Eastern pipistrelle, northern long-eared and little brown bats are also dying. Little brown bats, the most common hibernating species in the state, have sustained the largest number of deaths.
If you explore any of the counties indicated in blue or purple, be especially wary of caving, as these counties have known populations of Indiana bats, according to the USFWS. Wildlife officials in several Northeastern states have asked spelunkers to stop exploring caves until the cause of white nose syndrome is identified.
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