Sunday, 18 March 2012

Biodiversity: Bat-killing disease spreading south

SUMMIT COUNTY — A bat-killing disease that has wiped out nearly 7 million bats across the eastern United States is spreading southward, wildlife officials said this week after detecting white-nose syndrome in Alabama.
The state hosts the country’s biggest colony of federally endangered gray bats, and conservation biologists said they’re concerned, because the species roosts in just a handful of caves. If the species is susceptible to the disease, the population could devastated in a short time.
“This is the southernmost appearance of white-nose syndrome so far — the disease is clearly moving down into warmer parts of the country,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “America’s bats are in the throes of an unprecedented crisis that, without help from us, threatens to wipe some bat species off the face of the Earth.”
Bats bearing the telltale signs of the disease — fuzzy white smudges on their muzzles — were discovered at Russell Cave, in Jackson County, in early March by biologists from Alabama A&M University and the National Park Service. Definitive diagnosis was made via lab analysis at the University of Georgia. The Russell Cave complex features several miles of passages, with entrances on both private land and theRussell Cave National Monument, operated by the National Park Service.
All of Alabama, but particularly northeast Alabama where the bat disease was discovered, is rich in caves and in bats. All of the six species affected by white-nose syndrome thus far are found in the state, including the federally endangered Indiana bat.
Alabama joins 19 other states and four provinces as sites of the bat disease being either confirmed or suspected. While Alabama is the first new state this winter to document white-nose syndrome, the disease has been showing up in new locations in the South and Midwest over the last couple of months, including new counties in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. White-nose syndrome was discovered for the first time in all three states last year.
“White-nose syndrome has now infiltrated one of the most outstanding cave regions in the world, which historically has harbored amazing numbers of bats,” said Matteson. “We probably have not seen the worst of this tragedy, and the famous caves of Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana and other parts of the central and southern areas of the country may never be the same again.”
Before the bat disease showed up in Alabama, the spread of white-nose syndrome in Indiana and Kentucky was already deeply disturbing to biologists because the largest colonies of the Indiana bat are found in these states, as well as neighboring Missouri (where the disease-causing fungus was found on bats in 2010) and in southern Illinois.
White-nose syndrome was first documented in late winter 2006, in upstate New York. The disease rapidly spread throughout the Northeast. Bat mortality rates in affected caves and mines in that region have ranged from 70 percent to nearly 100 percent. This winter, biologists are finding that bats in West Virginia, where the disease struck in 2009, are also experiencing mortality rates greater than 90 percent.
Scientists have determined that the disease is caused by a previously unknown fungus, likely introduced by cave visitors from Europe. In Europe the fungus has been discovered on bats from France to Hungary, but it appears to do little to no harm to them.
“This disease is not slowing down, and it’s not likely to be any less catastrophic for hibernating bats in Alabama and the Midwest than it has been for bats in the northeastern states,” said Matteson. “White-nose syndrome has been an emergency from the beginning, but it’s now a Category 5. Our government needs to put serious money and science into solving this disease storm before it’s too late — not only for bats but for our crops and our farmers, who depend on bats for insect control.”
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