You'd think this would be a good time of year for local bats. Fat and happy from eating insects all summer, they're ready to settle down for their long winter's nap.
But hibernation's gotten a little spooky for bats around the Capital Region.
A few years ago in Howes Cave, scientists noticed a strange white fungus growing around the mouths of bats there. The identity of that fungus -- and why it was there -- was a mystery. But researchers quickly noticed the fungus seemed to be linked to big die-offs in the local bat population. In one site, Schoharie Caverns, 97 percent of the bats died. Scientists say the bat population there might be gone for good.
This mystery fungus has now been observed in caves around the Northeast -- and it appears that Albany County is the epicenter of the epidemic.
So, what's going on? No one's sure, exactly. But in a paper released by the uber-journal Science today, researchers from the NY DEC, DOH and a bunch of other institutions report that they've gotten a better handle on what sort of fungus they're dealing with. And, in a twist out of some winter horror movie, the fungus thrives in the cold. The researchers also found that the fungus invades the bats' skin, infecting their wings (as you can imagine, wings are pretty important to a bat). While they can't say for certain that's what's killing the bats, the paper's lead author says it looks like a likely culprit.
Bats don't really have the best reputation with the general public, but they're actually very important to ecosystems. They vacuum up insects during the summer, providing a check on mosquito populations. In fact, a single bat can eat as many as 3000 mosquitoes in a single night.
photo: Nancy Heaslip, NY DEC
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