Field observations by Nature Conservancy and Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists provide grounds for some optimism that bat populations ravaged by a fungal malady are stabilizing. It’s a glimmer of hope for creatures that humans rely on to control insect and pest populations in forests and farm fields.
The fungus behind white nose syndrome, which has spread from Georgia to Maine and as far west as Oklahoma since it was discovered in 2006 near Albany, N.Y., causes itching that wakes hibernating bats prematurely. Thus woken, bats burn fat supposed to last them all winter; then, finding no insects to eat, they starve to death.
The malady had reduced the bat population of Aitkin Cave in Mifflin County from 4,000-plus in 2009 to 39 in 2012. But on Feb. 19, scientists found 41.
Why some bats die from white nose syndrome and others don’t — genetic resistance? physiological adaptation? — remains a mystery. But “pudgier” examples of one species, the little brown bat, tend to survive, perhaps due to extra fat reserves.
Hopefully, more observations will confirm that bat populations are indeed stabilizing. Given bats’ critical ecological role and their swift, steep decline, these early indications that white nose syndrome’s grim grip is weakening is encouraging.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review