Emily Brunkhurst: (603) 271-2461
Liza Poinier: (603) 271-3211
February 23, 2009
White Nose Syndrome Seen in Bats in N.H. Hibernaculum
Residents Asked to Report Bats Seen Flying in Winter
CONCORD, N.H. -- More bad news for bats in New England: Though their findings have not yet been confirmed by lab testing, bat researchers monitoring New Hampshire's hibernating bats have found early signs of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) in bats at a mine in the Northwest part of the state. Biologists from N.H. Fish and Game's Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program and all across the region are involved in tracking WNS, which was discovered just two years ago and appears to be nearly always fatal to bats.
During their surveys of winter hibernacula (hibernating places, typically caves and mines), researchers took photographs of hibernating bats. In the images from one mine where hundreds of bats hibernate, several bats had the characteristic white fungus on their muzzles. "We don't know whether the cold-loving white fungus is a symptom of WNS or the cause," said Emily Brunkhurst, biologist with the Nongame Program. "We also don't know exactly how the syndrome spreads," she added, "but we do know that the white fungus is the first sign that it has arrived. In other hibernacula, when the white fungus has been seen, it's only a matter of time before a high percentage of the bats are affected. The fungus spreads from their faces to their wings and tails, their behavior changes, they use up their stores of body fat and get very skinny. And they die."
One possible sign of WNS is bats flying in winter. "Bats are very small, delicate creatures, and they need to hibernate for several months in a place where they're protected from the worst cold weather," Brunkhurst said. "When they leave hibernation in January or February, that's a really bad sign, and a likely indicator of WNS. They won't have the fat reserves or energy to make it to spring if they leave the protection of a cave or mine so early in the year, and they'll waste the little energy they have fruitlessly searching for insects that aren't here yet."
N.H. Fish and Game has teamed up with Vermont Fish and Wildlife to collect information on sick bats. If you find a bat flying outside this winter, or clinging to the outside of a building, or dead outside, report it on the online reporting form hosted on the Vermont Fish and Wildlife website: www.vtfishandwildlife.com/Sick_Acting_Bat_Citizen_Reporting_Form.cfm.
If you have found a dead bat and would like to send it to a laboratory for WNS testing, contact the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program at NH Fish and Game at (603) 271-2461 to arrange for transportation. To collect a dead bat, place it in a plastic zipper bag, then in a second zipper bag, and freeze. In the outside bag, place a note stating where and when the bat was collected, by whom and anything else you observed about the bat. Although White Nose Syndrome is not known to affect humans, bats can transmit other diseases such as rabies, so always take the precaution of wearing thick gloves when handling a bat, whether it is dead or alive. Bats groom the fungus off before flying, so you will not see white fungus on a bat that leaves its hibernaculum.
There are 8 bat species in New Hampshire. Four species are winter hibernators; many travel to other states to hibernate, since N.H. has very few natural caves and only a handful of mines.
Brunkhurst says that WNS seems to have the biggest impact on the little brown bat, so our most common bat is also the one most at risk. "The little brown bat is the bat we often see cruising over a pond, eating insects," she said. The N.H. state-endangered Eastern small-footed bat has also been affected by WNS in other states, as have the other hibernating bat species, Eastern pipistrelle and Northern long-eared bats. In nearby states, the federally endangered Indiana bat is also in grave danger, while the new sites in West Virginia also threaten the endangered Virginia long-eared bat.
In New Hampshire, bats use old mines for hibernating. Some mines can be easy to survey, with straight tunnels into the rock, but the largest is a multilevel mine with convoluted passages requiring professional climbing gear. Often, the floor of the mine is full of water. The bats hang from the ceiling, in singles or small clusters. Brunkhurst, who was a member of the survey team that discovered the signs of WNS, described her experience: "Your headlamp makes the bats glow, because they are often covered with tiny droplets of water. High humidity is critical to keep the bats from dehydrating in the long winter months. Clustered bats are squished tightly together to share the warmth." Brunkhurst said that the researchers are collecting various information, including the number of bats and the temperature and humidity at several locations, plus other data as requested for regional surveys. "This year we are collecting soil samples to see whether the fungus is present in the environment," Brunkhurst noted. "If we find any bats with fungus growing on them, we take a sample of the fungus. We'll also collect any dead bats to send to the labs."
Bats reproduce slowly, usually with just one "pup" a year per female, so a major population loss can become a crisis in a very short timeframe. Brunkhurst said, "Bats eat thousands of pounds of agricultural pests and nuisance species like mosquitoes every summer, so it's shocking to think about the ways changes to the bat population could ripple through the ecosystem, not to mention the human food chain."
After its discovery in four caves in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, fast-moving WNS was discovered at sites in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. This winter, the syndrome has also surfaced in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In West Virginia, the affected sites are near the largest and most important hibernacula in the east.
More than a dozen research labs are currently studying the syndrome and trying to learn more about what it is, what's causing it, how it is transmitted and how to prevent it. Transmission of WNS may be bat-to-bat, or it's possible that spelunkers or cavers are carrying WNS on their equipment. As a safety, footwear, clothing and gear worn or used in one cave or mine should not be used in another. The lab research has focused on the possible causes of WNS. So far there have been no viruses, bacteria or other pathogens found, but the fungus has been identified. Contaminants, the amount and quality of fall feeding, and the rate at which energy stored as fat is used up are all being studied.
Find more information and links on the N.H. Fish and Game Department's Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program website at wildnh.com/Wildlife/Nongame/bats.html.