Scientists warn bat-killing disease is spreading
A mysterious disease that's killing tens of thousands of bats in the Northeast is spreading so fast that it could reach California within...
WASHINGTON — A mysterious disease that's killing tens of thousands of bats in the Northeast is spreading so fast that it could reach California within five years, biologists and officials of the Agriculture and Interior departments told lawmakers Thursday.
"Never in my wildest imagination would I have dreamed of anything that could pose this serious a threat to America's bats," Merlin Tuttle, a biologist with Bat Conservation International who has studied the creatures for 50 years, told two House subcommittees.
He called the bat-killing disease, which could threaten eight species with extinction, "the most serious threat to American wildlife in the past century."
According to the Agriculture Department, bats eat pests that otherwise would cost farmers up to $1 billion a year in damages.
The disease, "white-nose syndrome," makes bats awaken from hibernation prematurely and leave their caves. Freezing, unable to find insects to eat, they fall from the sky and die.
About 95 percent of infected bats die, and the disease appears to spread from bat to bat, infecting entire caves, officials said. The main clue to their deaths is fungus-encrusted noses and wings. Whether the fungus causes their deaths or is merely a symptom of a failing immune symptom is unknown.
To find out, researchers want help from two natural-resources subcommittees, whose members sounded sympathetic, the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife.
First discovered in 2006 in a cave outside Albany, N.Y., the disease has spread to Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and possibly Canada.
The white fungus appears to thrive in colder caves, so its spread could dwindle as it moves south and west. However, scientists found bats with white-nose syndrome in southern Virginia in March, and the temperature at which the fungus will die is unknown.
A similar fungus has been found in caves in Europe since the 1980s, the biologists said, but doesn't kill the bats there.
The Department of the Interior has spent $5 million studying white-nose syndrome, and it has closed 2,000 caves, said Marvin Moriarty, Northeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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