Disease making bat sightings rare in region

The decorative bats hanging alongside pumpkins, skeletons and spider webs as Halloween nears may car

The decorative bats hanging alongside pumpkins, skeletons and spider webs as Halloween nears may carry a bit more symbolism this year.

That’s because today, unlike just four years ago, it’s a rarity for people in the Capital Region to see even one real bat.

The affliction called “White Nose Syndrome” has taken out 95 percent of New York’s northern and tri-colored bat populations. And 90 percent of the little brown bats are now dead, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Despite the bad news, and the growing fear that people today are watching several species of animals die off, scientists are making headway understanding nature’s sudden attack on the tiny, bug-eating mammals.

After testing more than 2,000 different compounds, scientists at the state Health Department’s Wadsworth Center Laboratory found several things that can kill the white fungus that’s been found on the noses and bodies of the dead and dying bats.

Previously unrecognized by science, the fungus is similar to the one that causes athlete’s foot in people, and medication used to treat athlete’s foot in people is effective in stemming the growth of the bat fungus.

Also, common ingredients in household disinfectants were found to completely stop the growth of the fungus, according to the research performed by a study team consisting of staff from the Wadsworth Center and the Ordway Research Institute in Albany.

But though it’s good news the fungus can be killed, more work needs to be done before anyone could even consider trying to treat bats, Health Department spokesman Peter Constantakes said.

The next step should be field testing, and the hope is that it could begin quickly, he said.

“There is a real concern that the die-off is happening quickly and something needs to be done,” Constantakes said.

State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologist Carl Herzog said the department was able to come up with more accurate numbers on specific species following its summer research.

“None of it’s good news,” he said.

The fungus for some reason is making bats wake up more often while they’re supposed to be hibernating in their caves, Herzog said.

They typically wake up every three weeks or so anyway, but now they wake up more frequently and stay awake longer, burning off the fat they need to make it through the winter.

Little browns used to be the most abundant bats in New York, Herzog said. Now, they are on track to be fewer in number than the already endangered Indiana bat, which for some reason is not as heavily affected by the white nose disease, he said.

Indiana bat populations are down by 50 percent at this point.

“We may end up with more Indiana bats than little brown bats,” he said.

Herzog said it’s unlikely environmental technicians could treat bats or entire cave systems — the mere act of trying to apply a coating of foot fungus medication to the bats could be deadly.

“There are things that kill the fungus. The difficulty is, how do you implement that in a way that works?” he said.

“With the bats it’s not easy because we have evidence, for example, that just merely handling them in the wintertime, on top of the impairment this disease is causing them, will kill them.”

And in places farther south, there are several other species, some of them endangered, that live in the same caves where the bats winter, and foot fungus medication could kill them.

“The net loss would potentially be worse than what you could do to help the bats,” Herzog said.

The task of treating mines and caves that don’t have other species in them would also be massive.

It would take an hour just to walk from one side of a cave to another, and many of these caves are full of craggy rocks, cracks and crevasses, making travel inside treacherous, Herzog said.

There is some good news about the white nose fungus itself.

Herzog said it’s been found in bat caves in Europe, and bats there are not dying. That could indicate some type of immunity that’s not yet developed in U.S. bats.

But even as researchers make headway, bats are becoming an increasingly rare sight in the Capital Region.

“People already tell me that they’re not seeing the bats,” Herzog said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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