August 18, 2013

Bat war calls for nuclear option

The fight to save brown bats from white-nose syndrome includes using sterilized weapons bunkers as caves.

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

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Unused nuclear weapons bunkers are being readied for use as artificial caves for bat hibernation.

Photos courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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A brown bat with white nose syndrome is shown above. The fungal infection has killed more than 5.5 million bats in eastern North America since it was first detected in upstate New York in 2006. Researches are investigating various ways to prevent the spread of the disease.

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"Bats are an important component in our ecosystem," Agius said. "All organisms are. But avian mammals are incredibly unique."

In some places little brown bats and to a lesser extent northern long-eared bats have been almost completely eliminated, said John DePue, state small mammal biologist. "The little brown bats and northern long-eared bats have seen a precipitously large decline."

Because the devastation to bat populations has been so profound, biologists and wildlife specialists have locked onto the question of how the disease is spread as a way to try to stop it, Agius said.

People become part of the disease equation, because spores of the fungus are thought to be accidentally transported from one place to another on people's clothing, footwear and caving gear, Froschauer said. In fact, many researchers believe that the fungus originated in Europe and was carried to the U.S. by humans on gear used in contaminated caves abroad.

"This is essentially an invasive fungus from Europe," said Scott Darling, Vermont state biologist, who participates in the Aroostook County experiment both by collecting and transporting bats and by helping to plan and design the research.

"We continue to be in a dire situation with bats in the Northeast," he said. "They continue to die and if we don't do anything, they'll disappear."

White-nose syndrome apparently does not afflict people, pets or livestock, but it frequently has proven deadly to at least seven species of hibernating bats, killing 90 percent or more of some species in caves where the fungus has lasted for a year or longer, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The fungus also has been found on two additional bat species, apparently without causing white-nose syndrome.


The first bunker in the bat-cave program at the Aroostook refuge already has been retrofitted with temperature and humidity controls, insulated doors, a thermal blanket and a layer of soil over its rounded top.

The next step is a thorough cleaning inside, probably with Dawn detergent and a steam pressure wash to remove the soap residue, which might prove toxic to the bats, Agius said.

Then, as hibernation season draws near, officials will broadcast wide-spectrum recordings of swarming calls, inaudible to humans but discernible by bats.

If all goes according to plan, some of Maine's declining population of little brown bats -- likely including some already with white-nose syndrome -- might flock to the site, Agius said. Wildlife officials hope bats will be exposed to less of the fungal disease in the man-made, he said.

"It's like the Noah's Ark strategy," Agius said. If things get grim enough, humans have to step in to protect species of animals that without outside intervention may disappear altogether. That means focusing efforts both on saving the animals and preserving habitat.

Creating an artificial cave -- and successfully bringing bats to a bunker to hibernate -- are key goals of the program, Agius said. In addition, researchers are trying to determine how to reduce the "fungal load" -- or amount of infection -- that sickens and kills that bats. Biologists theorize that the bats can survive exposure to the fungus to some degree, because infected populations in Europe are resistant, even though the fungus is still found there.

"The evidence suggests that it's been there awhile," said Darling.

Bats in the U.S. might possibly adapt and evolve resistance, too, but one question is whether they can -- or will -- before populations are wiped out. Every available method -- including collecting bats and cleaning the fungus from their muzzles and wings -- should be considered, because each has the potential to move a little closer to a solution, he said.

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Additional Photos

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Nuclear weapons bunkers in Aroostook County are being repurposed as artificial caves for bat hibernation. Two structures will be used this winter, one as a study control.


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