VT Edition: White Nose Syndrome Research

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(Jane Lindholm)  We continue to lose bats at an alarming rate in this part of the country.  The mysterious illness known as White Nose Syndrome has killed as much as 95% of hibernating bat populations in some caves and mines in Vermont, and has spread throughout the Northeast and as far south as southwestern Virginia. 

Scientists worry that left unchecked, this illness could spread even further and could spell the near complete extinction of bats in our region.  So they’re working overtime to try to figure out what’s causing the illness.  

To that end, some scientists in Vermont traveled to Wisconsin earlier this week and returned with 80 healthy bats that they placed in two Vermont locations.  I went along with them for the first of those placements. 

At about 6 o’clock on Tuesday night, with darkness closing in, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Biologist Scott Darling came trudging up hill to a small opening in the rock face at the Greely Mine in Stockbridge, where some other biologists had already opened the screens blocking the entrance to the man-made cave. 

Huffing and puffing…

(Scott Darling) "Hi Jane!"

(Jane) "Hi Scott!  Nice to see you!" 

(Darling) "So, the gates unlocked?"

(Ryan Smith) "Yup, we had them open in seconds…" 

(Lindholm) After catching his breath, Darling explained the plan.

(Darling) "What we’re going to do tonight is we’re going to be placing numerous bats from Wisconsin into Greely Mine, which has no other bats in it at this point in time.  And the purpose of this research is to determine if, in fact, these Wisconsin bats, which are healthy right now, will get White Nose Syndrome from spending a winter in an infected mine." 

(Lindholm)  Several scientists from Vermont Fish and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation entered the mine with 39 bats carried in two shoeboxes.  Other researchers stood sentry to make sure that no bats escaped.  As a precaution, there were three different screens and several traps set up at the mouth of the cave.

(Darling) "We’ve created quite a gauntlet so these animals will spend the winter here. Bats do have tremendous homing instincts and these bats, if in fact they escape, would be looking for a place that seems normal, part of their home range.  Wisconsin is a very long ways, and one can’t imagine them finding their way back there, but we wanted to make every effort we could to preclude that from even being a concern or an opportunity for them." 

(Lindholm) Precautions were taken all the way down the line on this trip.  The Vermont biologists wanted to make sure there was absolutely NO chance of spreading White Nose Syndrome to Wisconsin, which does not yet have the disease.  So before picking up the healthy bats they stripped away anything that could have come from Vermont…

(Darling) "From buying new clothes to showering in a neutral facility before we got into a vehicle that had never been entered into by a biologist before.  So we figured we were as clean as can be." 

(Lindholm) They traded in their cell phones, didn’t bring their own laptops, bought new toothbrushes.  Even so, Scott Darling says Wisconsin scientists wouldn’t let the Vermont researchers near Wisconsin caves.

(Darling) "Wisconsin’s bat biologist went into the mine and told us, properly so, that if we put one toenail in that mine he was personally going to beat us up.  So we knew to stay clear of that." 

(Lindholm) Once the 80 bats were captured from Maiden Rock mine in Northwestern Wisconsin, they were placed into socks that were placed inside coolers for a 27-hour trip straight back to Vermont.  All efforts were made to keep the bats relaxed-the socks allowed the bats to move up and down within the cooler to find their ideal temperature.

While driving east, the scientists identified and tagged the bats, which are all of the little brown species.  On about half the bats they attached data loggers.  Scott Darling says these tiny chips will record the weight of the bats every 20 minutes throughout the winter. 

(Darling) "That will enable us to see if these bats will be arousing frequently, and it’ll give us a chance to look at if, in fact, they are showing frequent arousal patterns as the winter progresses, which is somewhat of a symptom of White Nose Syndrome. 

(Lindholm) The data loggers store but can’t transmit their data, so scientists will have to reenter the mine in the early spring to collect the loggers.  And, unfortunately, all of the bats, sick or healthy, will have to be euthanized.  Researchers don’t want to risk the possibility that these bats could get back to Wisconsin. 

Greely Mine and a cave in Bridgewater were chosen for this bat experiment because they were known to have bat colonies that were infected with White Nose Syndrome.  And because although they are now clear of other bats, there are alternate caves nearby for any lingering Vermont bats.

On Tuesday night it took less than an hour for biologists to place all 39 sleepy bats on the rock wall.  Then they traced their steps backwards out of the mine, stapling up the three openings as they went. 

(Susi vonOettingen) "Are we ready to start getting out?"

(Darling) "Somebody can watch the first gate in and make sure nothing’s coming."

(Lindholm)  Once the scientists were out, the cave was re-sealed to keep the Wisconsin bats in and Vermont bats out, and the scientists trudged down the hill in the dark to head to the second site, in Bridgewater. 

Ultimately, this experiment is designed to see if transmission of White Nose Syndrome occurs bat to bat (like human flu) or if there is something actually in the cave that transmits the illness.

(Darling) "We are very hopeful that when we come back in the Spring or late winter that they will not be sick with White Nose Syndrome and that there will be opportunities in the future for us to try some bat recovery efforts with our existing bat hibernacula in Vermont." 

(Lindholm) In New York, New Hampshire, and other states affected by White Nose Syndrome scientists are running other types of experiments, including treating some bats with fungicides to see if those might work as they race to understand, contain, and ultimately cure this devastating illness before all the bats in the Northeast are gone.

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