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April 6, 2013

Outdoors: Bats are disappearing across New England

It is no exaggeration to say that the decline of the bat populations across New England is becoming an environmental disaster. In the latest surveys conducted by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department this winter, the several species of bats that winter there continue to simply disappear at an alarming rate as a result of the white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease affecting cave-hibernating bats. First detected in New York in 2007, it has now spread from Missouri to Nova Scotia.

The white-nose syndrome is a genus of fungi (Fusarium sp.) that is common in the environment and scientists are unsure as to why it is affecting bats over the last few years. What is also confusing is that this disease is so recent yet is becoming so widespread.

“The first inkling of trouble came in January 2007, when a cave explorer spotted an unusual number of bat carcasses around the mouth of a cave in the hills west of Albany, New York,” said Alan Hicks. Mammal Specialist for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. “Within a month, people in the area were calling in with reports of bats flying around outside in the middle of the day.”

“We’ve recorded declines as high as 90 percent during our cave surveys, so we feared a continuation of that drastic rate of decline this winter,” said Scott Darling, a scientist with the Vermont Fish and wildlife Dept. “While the rate that we’re losing bats each year appears to have slowed a bit, bat numbers were still considerably lower than in previous surveys. Some species, such as northern long-eared bats, are hardly appearing at all in these caves.”

“The freefall of bat populations due to white-nose syndrome is something that should be on everyone’s radar right now,” said Darling. “We’re observing the most precipitous decline of a group of species in recorded history and it’s happening right here in our region. Several species have virtually disappeared in less than a decade and we are getting increasing skeptical that these bats will ever return. Because these animals have very low reproductive rates of only one pup per year, it may take a very long time for these populations to come back. We can only speculate what this might mean for bat populations in the Northeast over the next several years.”

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