Bats are dying off by the thousands in caves around New York and Vermont.
Wildlife scientists say the killer is a mysterious disease known as "white-nose syndrome"-- named for the white circle of fungus that forms around the bats' noses. But scientists aren't sure if the fungus is the actual cause of death. Several laboratories are now analyzing bat carcasses to try to figure that out.
White-nose syndrome was first discovered last January in caves in eastern New York. Last year, between 8,000-11,000 bats died in New York-- the largest die-off of bats due to disease documented in North America. The disease has now spread to eight hibernation sites in New York and another in Vermont, putting an unknown number of bats at risk.
Alan Hicks, a bat specialist with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, called the quick-spreading syndrome the "gravest threat" to bats he had ever seen.
Little brown bats are sustaining the largest number of deaths, but northern long-eared, eastern pipistrelle and Indiana bats are also dying.
"We do not know how the disease is transmitted and whether there are any potential effects on humans," says Vermont Wildlife Biologist Scott Darling. "Our primary concern is to limit the disease from spreading further to other caves and mines that have larger numbers of hibernating bats."
So state and federal wildlife agencies are asking cavers and spelunkers to help limit the spread of disease by staying out of caves and mines with hibernating bats.
Darling says that in Vermont, the disease has been documented in Morris Cave in Danby.
Scientists warn people NOT to handle bats. If you come across live or dead bats with white-nose syndrome, contact your state wildlife agency.