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New disease threatens Dorset cave bats

State and federal wildlife agencies need the assistance of the caving and spelunking community to help limit the spread of a new disease that has killed thousands of hibernating bats.The agencies are asking cavers and spelunkers to avoid entering caves or mines with hibernating bats in Vermont and New York this winter to avoid transferring the disease from cave to cave and to avoid additional stress on hibernating bats. A new disease of unknown origin, known as white-nose syndrome, has been found in New York and Vermont. Last year, some 8,000 to 11,000 bats died at several locations in New York, the largest die-off of bats due to disease documented in North America. This year, an unknown number of bats are at risk. A white substance found on the bats noses has been identified as a fungus and is believed to be associated with the disease, but not necessarily the actual cause of death.Several pathology laboratories are analyzing carcasses to help determine the cause of the bat deaths. Biologists with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with cavers to develop strategies to address the issue. Our primary concern is to limit the disease from spreading further to other caves and mines that have larger numbers of hibernating bats, said State Wildlife Biologist Scott Darling.Here in Vermont, the disease has been documented in Morris Cave in Danby, and we will be checking other caves and mines. Little brown bats are sustaining the largest number of deaths, but northern long-eared, eastern pipistrelle and Indiana bats are also dying. We know that Indiana bats, a species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, have been affected in New York, and we are concerned about them in Vermont, according to biologist Susi von Oettingen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Northeast Region. Darling, an expert on bat ecology, has cancelled all bat hibernacula surveys in Vermont this winter, and is asking all outdoor recreationists to avoid entering caves or mines, at least until experts have a better understanding of the disease. We do not know how the disease is transmitted and whether there are any potential effects on humans, adds Darling. The caving community is comprised of very responsible stewards, and their interests in assisting in bat conservation have always been appreciated. We need to get the word out to other outdoor organizations and individuals such as outing clubs and commercial guides. Bat biologists from throughout the Northeast are evaluating strategies to monitor the presence of the disease and the need to collect specimens for laboratory analysis. Biologists are being very cautious, however, that they do not spread the disease in the process. In order to protect the bats and ourselves, we will be wearing haz-mat clothing when entering caves to monitor the bat populations and taking other precautions to avoid cross-contamination, said Darling. Bat populations are particularly vulnerable during hibernation as they congregate in large numbers in isolated caves, making them susceptible to disturbance or disease. Because these bats then migrate as far as hundreds of miles to their summer range, impacts to hibernating bats can have significant implications for bats throughout the Northeast. Bats from a cave in Dorset, Vt., have been documented traveling in the spring as far as Rhode Island and Cape Cod, says Darling. Darling is hopeful that the efforts this winter will yield some answers to the many questions facing bat biologists and cavers. If we can isolate the disease and determine whether it is spread by bats or by humans, then that should help us develop the proper strategies to limit its impacts on bats, he added. Individuals should not handle bats.If you come across live or dead bats with white-nose syndrome, contact your state wildlife agency.

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