Mystery deaths in bats, similar to colony collapse disorder of bees

Thousands of bats are dying from an unknown illness in the northeastern U.S. at a rate that could cause extinction, New York state wildlife officials said. At eight caves in New York and one in Vermont, scientists have seen bat populations plummet over two years. Most bats hibernate in the same cave every winter, keeping annual counts consistent. A cave that had 1,300 bats in January 2006 had 470 bats last year. It recently sheltered just 38. At another cave, more than 90 percent of about 15,500 bats have died since 2005, and two-thirds that remain now sleep near the cave's entrance, where conditions are less hospitable. Scientists don't know what's causing the deaths, and biologists wearing sanitary clothing and respirators to prevent the spread of disease are collecting the dead for testing as part of a state and U.S. effort. ``There are an awful lot of bat people, even a month ago before we had half of this bad news, all saying the same thing. We've never seen anything like it, and we're all scared,'' said Alan Hicks, the leader of the investigation for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in a telephone interview today. Hicks led the probe into the dying bats until last week, when other agencies joined, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, the Northeast Cave Conservancy, the National Speleological Society and researchers from universities across the U.S.

White Fungus

Some bats in the die-off have a white fungus encircling their noses. Most living bats now are underweight, too thin to make it through the winter, Hicks said. They choose their hibernating spots based on weight. Colder resting spots, like the ones near the entrance help energy reserves last longer.
``These guys are hibernating in places you never see healthy bats hibernating,'' Hicks said. When they're not hibernating, healthy bats eat about half their weight in bugs every night, including mosquitoes, grasshoppers, locusts and moths that can spread disease among humans and devastate crops. Bat populations are vulnerable to disease during hibernation as they congregate in large numbers in caves, sometimes packed so densely that it's difficult to see the cavern wall behind them. In warmer months, bats migrate hundreds of miles to their summer homes, so a new disease could rapidly spread across the region, Hicks said.


Indiana Bats

Indiana bats, a species considered endangered by the U.S., are especially vulnerable. Half of New York's estimated 52,000 Indiana bats live in a single former mine infected with the white nose fungus. The four most common bats in the region, including the little brown bat and the eastern pipistrelle, the northern long-eared bat and the Indiana bat, all are dying from the disease, Hicks said. ``When you go in a cave, you wonder how many thousands of years the bats have been coming to this particular hole,'' Hicks said. ``Now every site I walk into, I look and I say are these going to be around for my kids to see? Are they going to be sitting out in the front yard and be able to enjoy a bat skipping around a moth?''A separate malady known as Colony Collapse Disorder has killed millions of bees in the U.S. and threatens $14.6 billion of U.S. crops, including almonds, apples, oranges and blueberries, which rely on bees for pollination, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. It may cause $75 billion of economic damage if left unchecked, the agency said.

The illness was identified after thousands of U.S. beekeepers found unusually large losses -- 90 percent or more in some cases -- beginning in 2006. Colony Collapse has been found in 35 U.S. states, one Canadian province, and parts of Asia, Europe and South America. Scientists haven't identified the cause and believe it may be the result of several things in combination. ``You have a strong parallel with the bees in that we just don't know what's going on,'' Hicks said. A report byTom randall from Bloomberg.com

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