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White nose decimates Vt. bat population - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

White nose decimates Vt. bat population

Dorset, Vermont - April 14, 2010

As the sun begins to set on Mount Aeolus, wildlife biologists are making the two-mile climb to Vermont's largest bat cave... fearful of what they may find.

"It's been a long time since we've seen a live one," commented Scott Darling of the Vt. Fish & Wildlife Department.

A mysterious disease known as white nose syndrome continues to spread to bat caves across the Eastern United States, with mortality rates now approaching 95 percent.

The fungus acts as an irritant that causes bats to awaken from hibernation more frequently, depleting their fat reserves and causing them to starve.

Up until very recently the Mount Aeolus cave was the largest bat cave in all of New England with upwards of 300,000 bats. Today those numbers have dwindled to only a couple hundred.

"I had some optimism we'd have an answer to this within months, and the reality is it'll be years," Darling said. "There's really not a lot of progress."

There has been one breakthrough. Scientists now know the fungus is identical to one that has existed in Europe for decades. The fungus in Europe doesn't seem to be killing bats, but the population there is much smaller.

"It's possible the fungus caused mortality several hundred years ago and wasn't documented and these are the remaining bats that developed a resistance to it," said Ryan Smith of the Vt. Fish & Wildlife Department.

Biologists on this night are trapping bats to check their condition. Those given a rating of one have little scarring or damage caused by the fungus. Those with a three don't have long to live.

As the night grows darker, more bats leave the Aeolus cave. But unlike two years ago when more than 200 bats were trapped, only a dozen or so were caught leaving the cave this spring.

"Typically you'd expect to see some resistance to the disease in a population, but we really haven't seen any evidence of that at all here," Darling said.

That's troubling news for scientists trying to get to the bottom of this mystery... worried that the bat exodus from the cave at Aeolus is a sight future generations of Vermonters may never get to see.

Scientists are working on a treatment for the fungus. Bats in the Adirondacks are being given an anti-fungal agent similar to that used to treat athlete's foot. It's too early to tell if that compound is working. Biologists in Vermont hope to begin experimenting with the fungicide sometime this fall.

Keagan Harsha - WCAX News

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