Disease threatens America's bats

11:52 PM, Apr 28, 2008   |    comments
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On a dark night, downtown St. Paul has that 'Gotham City' look. And it's not hard to find those with a fear of flying things. "St. Paul has a lot of bats," says Jim Berg, owner of Twin Cities Magic and Costume. At his new downtown business location, Berg sells fake bats and has found real bats in his building's version of a belfry. "If the bat doesn't pay rent, he doesn't get to stay," quips Berg. But if a bat flies east to Spring Valley, Wisconsin, the welcome-bat-mat is out. Owners Blaze and Jean Cunningham walk down the steps into their cave, otherwise known as Crystal Cave. As Jean puts it,"The more bats, the better." The couple strolls through the cave. Blaze points out, "A few of them up here." They don't fear the bats, flying or sleeping as they are this March day. Stopping to look at one of their bats, Blaze observes, "He's healthy. He's great." Some 600 healthy bats wintered at Crystal Cave this year. One suddenly spreads its wings, and lets go of the ceiling, startling KARE 11 Photographer Jeff Christian. He's okay. But it's really the bats that should be scared. "We first heard about the White Nose Syndrome in January," says Blaze. Fortunately, they've looked and not found the telltale signs. "They get a fungus that grows right around their nose," says Blaze. And bat experts say that fungus is the reason for the name White Nose Syndrome. And there's good reason the Cunninghams don't want to find it. "It is a major concern because this could wipe out populations on the east coast, and if it starts to move to the central part of the United States, we could theoretically lose all our bats," notes Jean. What is not clear to the experts is whether the fungus is a symptom, or the problem. For now, the government sees a spreading problem. White Nose Syndrome showed up about a year ago in upstate New York caves. Thousands and thousands of bats died then. This last winter, the government says biologists found it in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. It could be as far west as Pennsylvania. "I believe this is the most serious threat we've seen to American bats in recorded history," says Dr. Merlin Tuttle, with Austin, Texas based Bat Conservation International. He says White Nose Syndrome kills more than 90% of bats in caves where it's present. And he fears it could spread nationwide. "If this is a pathogen, we've got a very serious problem because bats are going to be among the quickest to move around long distances," says Tuttle. Whatever 'it' is, Tuttle marvels at what happens - hibernating bats awaken, leave their winter homes and die, apparently from starvation. Tuttle says, "Either they can't find enough food in the fall to put on sufficient fat, or something is causing them to deplete their fat reserves." And it's their appetite, Tuttle says, we can't do without. Bats protect the nation's crops by consuming gobs of bugs. Tuttle points out, "We have bats from a single cave that eat 200 tons of insects in a single night." And of course, they're mosquito-eating machines - a true gift to Minnesotans. As it turns out, Tuttle suggests spraying for mosquitoes carrying West Nile, may be getting the bats. "There are also new pesticides coming on the market that have not been adequately tested relative to their potential impact on bats. The pesticides have multiple ways of potentially affecting the bats," says Tuttle. Back in Minnesota, at Roseville's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where they care for injured or orphaned wild animals, bats need not worry about starving. "Are you hungry?" asks Senior Veterinarian Tasha Barnes, as she uses forceps to feed bugs to a bat. Executive Director Phil Jenni says his center is standing guard these days, looking for white nosed bats. He recalls, "Four or five years ago we were seeing a lot of crows and blue jays that had some undetermined disease. Well it turned out to be West Nile disease, and we were one of the first places to really recognize that." Back at Crystal Cave, where time is marked by the pitter patter of ceiling drips, answers can't come quickly enough. As Jean puts it, "Keep an eye out to see if anything shows up. And just hope that it doesn't." Blaze adds, "Of course the problem right now is we don't know of any cure." As scientists search for solutions, the Cunninghams hope their healthy bats don't mix it up with sick bats, winging true fear in the cave. Jean worries, "It could literally be the end of several species of bats." Right now, scientists say there is no evidence the mysterious bat disease can be spread to humans. Tuttle points out however, that this is eerily similar to last summer's mass die-off of bees. When animals as unrelated as bees and bats die off in the same time frame, Tuttle fears it could be a 'canary in the coal mine' warning.

By Greg Vandegrift, KARE 11 News

(Copyright 2008 by KARE11. All Rights Reserved.)

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