Scientists search for answers to deadly bat illness, as hibernation season nears

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(Host) Last winter, a mysterious illness called White Nose Syndrome spread from New York caves to caves in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. It’s a sickness that affects bats, and early reports suggest that it could have a catastrophic effect on the bat population in the Northeast.

This summer, scientists have been scrambling to get more information before bats return to their caves to hibernate this fall.

VPR’s Jane Lindholm has more.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Darling has been trapping and inspecting bats to see if they exhibit the tell-tale wing scarring that’s a result of White Nose Syndrome.

"When we started earlier in June we noticed a high proportion of the bats, particularly in Southern Vermont, had a high amount of wing scarring. And then as the summer progressed the average scores or scarring on the wings seemed to decrease. It’s likely that that is a function of the bats with the poorer wing scarring may have in fact died."

Darling says bats that have survived this long seem to be healthy. And scientists hope they will be able to make it through this coming winter as well.

"They seem to have gained weight adequately. Only in very small instances do you still see a dehydrated condition in the wing. Really all the evidence we have is simply the scarring-the white blotches on the wings of the bats."

But Darling does expect to see thousands more bats die this winter. White Nose Syndrome still remains a complete mystery to scientists. They don’t even know whether the illness existed in Vermont caves before bats began displaying symptoms.

This fall Vermont Fish and Wildlife is working with Boston University to measure body weight and body composition of bats returning to caves for hibernation. And this winter Vermont will take part in a region-wide research project within the caves.

"We will actually place transponders on the backs of little brown bats and those transponders are going take the body temperature of the bats and tell us whether they’re hibernating at the proper body temperatures or if in fact they’re waking up more frequently, for whatever reason, during the winter."

Scott Darling hopes the multi-pronged approach to research, which also includes cultivating various fungi to pinpoint a source, will help scientists determine at least the cause of White Nose Syndrome. But that’s only the first step.

"Probably what we are most concerned about is that we will get some answers and that there will be nothing we can do about it."

For VPR news, I’m Jane Lindholm.


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