Bat count vital in fighting wildlife disease


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They've got webbed wings, pointed teeth, sharp claws and furry bodies.

They're the alleged "creepy" bats, and there's another trait many seem to have as well -- a white snout. It's not a fashion statement, but rather the effects of a rapidly spreading disease first spotted in a cave near Albany, N.Y., in 2006.

In an annual bat count recurring this summer, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is asking landowners to report on the number of bats on their properties. The results will be used in research on a wildlife disease that threatens the survival of several bat species and could impact the agriculture industry.

"The disease is called white-nose syndrome because the most obvious symptom is a fungus that causes the disease," said Nathan Zalik, a Game Commission wildlife biologist. "This white fungus is often seen growing on the noses of bats when they're hibernating in caves in the wintertime."

As of this year, bats are sporting these white mustaches in more than 115 caves and mines throughout the Northeast United States and four Canadian provinces.

Bats are attacked by the fungus, which appears on their muzzle and wings while they hibernate in the winter. Researchers believe the condition rouses them from their slumber and saps a lot of their energy. They starve to death during hibernation. The disease is not contagious to humans or pets.

Calvin Butchkoski, a Game Commission wildlife biologist, says that the bats have a "mechanical approach" to fighting the disease. They search for a new roost, but the wintertime is too cold for them to handle and some freeze to death.

The Game Commission has been keeping numbers on the bats' summer maternity colonies since the summer of 1993 and encourages property owners to count the bats that live near them.

"Abandoned houses, barns, church steeples -- and even currently occupied structures -- can provide a summer home to female bats and their young," said Zalik.

White-nose syndrome, which appeared in Pennsylvania in 2008, is even more reason for the Game Commission to track the state's population.

"We're seeing a shift in species. Little brown bats were by far the most numerous species in Pennsylvania before white-nose syndrome, whereas now little brown bats have been greatly affected by this disease. Their population has declined dramatically," Butchkoski said.

Big brown bats, a common bat species in North America, have also been showing symptoms of the disease, but in fewer numbers than little brown bats.

"Based on our surveys alone for the Appalachian bat count, last year's surveys indicated that there was an 83 percent drop compared to historical high counts," said Zalik.

John and Maureen Burnham, tree farmers from Washington County, have been participating in the Appalachian bat count for four years.

"We count them as they drop out [of bat houses built on the farm], and depending on when it gets dark, it'll start," said Maureen Burnham. "[Within] 15 minutes they all exit the house. They go out in singles or twos or threes."

John Burnham says he has noticed that the number of bats seen exiting the houses has shrunk.

"They're an important development in the overall ecosystem, and in some cases the counts have gone to zero," he said. "So this is a pretty devastating disease."

Female bats in these summer maternity colonies can consume their body weight in insects in a single night. When there are fewer bats, there are more bugs. Their insect diet includes pests that damage crops and blood-sucking mosquitoes that could transmit diseases to humans. Traditionally bats are an important part of keeping those insect populations at bey.

"But once bats get that rare, then they no longer function in that way," said Jerry Hassinger, a retired wildlife biologist from Millersburg, Pa., who originally pitched the idea of involving citizens in counting bats in 1993.

With all of these bugs going uneaten, a financial burden is put on the agriculture industry.

"It's been estimated that across the U.S., if bats had to be replaced by the use of pesticides it would cost us millions and millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars," said Hassinger.

Not much is certain about the disease itself, and research is ongoing. The mortality rate of bats is continuing to increase, and some species are at risk of becoming endangered.

Residents are encouraged to count their bats and report it to the Game Commission. For information on how to participate, go to the Game Commission's website at www.pgc.state.pa.us.

huntingfishing

Christina Gilbert: cgilbert@post-gazette.com.


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