White-nose Syndrome, which has killed hundreds of thousands of bats in the Northeast over the past two years, has spread to two more states, the New Jersey Star-Ledger reports.
The still-mysterious ailment was first noted among hibernating bats in two New York caves during the winter of 2006-07. By the following winter, it was reported killing bats in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well. Mortality rates among bats at some sites have exceeded 90 percent. Wildlife authorities say WNS has now reach bat populations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Hundreds of dead bats have been reported in New Jersey.
“Everyone has a kind of helpless feeling. You can't start treating something when you don't know the cause of it,” Mick Valent of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, told the newspaper.
For unknown reasons, WNS prompts bats to emerge from hibernation caves in the dead of winter, long before their hibernation season is over. These unusual flights burn crucial fat reserves, which is often fatal.
It is called “white-nose syndrome” because a white fungus is found on the snouts of many affected bats. The fungus is not always found on WNS-killed bats, however, and it is not clear whether it is the actual cause of the bat kills, the Star-Ledger said. “What we have here is a suspect, but not the murder weapon,” said Alan Hicks, the New York state biologist who discovered the phenomenon.
Valent told reporter Brian Murray that the fungus was visible on many dead bats found inside and outside three former mines in two New Jersey sites, Rockaway Township and Denville, state’s primary bat-hibernation area. The affected caves include New Jersey's largest bat hibernaculum, the Hibernia Mine, Murray wrote.
“It was really devastating for me to see that,” Valent said, adding that the discovery began with finding a few bats lying, quivering in the snow, outside the caves. Subsequent inspections of the revealed hundreds of dead bats, many bearing the telltale white-nose fungus, the Star-Ledger reported.
The Most frequent victim of WNS is the little brown bat myotis. But the endangered Indiana myotis is also severely affected and found in New Jersey, particularly at Hibernia Mine. Valent said the dead bats did not include any Indiana myotis.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, meanwhile, reports that the Pennsylvania Game Commission has confirmed the presence of the White-nose Syndrome fungus in several sites in that state.
At an abandoned iron mine, scientists first noticed that 6 percent of hibernating bats had the fungus on their noses and ears. Returning later, they found that 45
45 percent of the bats had moved toward the entrance – extremely unusual behavior among hibernating bats.
No bat die-offs have been reported in Pennsylvania. The Inquirer said biologists don’t know whether “they are seeing something new, or are they simply lucky enough to be getting data on what happens first, before the die-offs.”
Bat biologists and conservationists are holding their breath while waiting to see what happens next.