From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published August 3, 2012 09:52 AM

The Diseased Caves of Bats

Bats are mammals of the order whose forelimbs form webbed wings, making them the only mammals naturally capable of true and sustained flight. A fungus has rapidly spread across the bat population east of Colorado, making their noses, ears, wings and feet white. Aiming to slow the westward spread of the disease that has killed an estimated 5.5 million bats since 2006, the U.S. Forest Service has extended an emergency order restricting human access to abandoned mines and caves in the Rocky Mountain region for another year. Caves and mines are common roosts for bats. The disease first appeared in upstate New York in a cave connected to a popular tourist cave. To date, white-nose syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. The fungus that causes the disease has been detected on bats as far west as eastern Iowa and western Oklahoma. Bats and people are capable of transporting the fungus, which is believed to have originated in Europe. Biologists fear the bat malady will leapfrog into the western United States, where many more new bat species may be susceptible to the disease.

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White Nose Syndrome, or WNS, is named for a white fungus that appears on the faces, ears, wings and feet of hibernating bats. Scientists are trying to determine the effects and manner of spread of this disease. Once a colony is affected, the fungus spreads rapidly and may kill 90 or more percent of bats at the hibernation site in just two years.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that since its discovery in 2006 in the northeastern United States that at least 5 million bats may have died from WNS.

The disease has not yet been detected in Colorado, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Janelle Smith said.

The closure order affects about 30,000 mines and hundreds of caves in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. The hope is that by limiting human access, the fungus won't hit the area that has yet to be infected.

Smith said that data on the disease shows that it has traveled distances surpassing that of bats' typical migratory patterns, leading researchers to believe humans have contributed to transmission.

The closure issued by the Rocky Mountain region this year explicitly allows for exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Cavers willing to assist the Forest Service in conducting bat surveys and other cave conservation work may be allowed limited cave access after submitting formal requests to forest supervisors; members of the National Speleological Society and the Cave Research Foundation are among those who may be allowed access to caves in the region.

The Forest Service closed virtually all caves in the agency’s eastern and southern regions in 2009, when white-nose syndrome was spreading rapidly throughout the Northeast and beginning to appear in the southern Appalachians. Those closure orders are still in place to protect bats affected by the disease from further disturbance and to prevent the fungus from being transported out of the region.  Tennessee, for example extended its ban in 2012.

"Cave closures are needed throughout the West,”"said Matteson. "The loss of millions of bats is a terrible tragedy that has real consequences for people who depend on them to keep insect pests in check."

For further information see  Closure and Fungus.

Bat image via Wikipedia.

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