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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"As long as they're not picking up tremendous loads of this stuff, (it) may allow them enough time to build up a resistance," Agius said.

White-nose syndrome, so named because it leaves a white residue on the muzzles and wings of affected bats, continues to spread from the Northeast, said Froschauer.

The syndrome was first detected in bats in caves near Albany, N.Y., in 2006 and has steadily expanded into new areas. This year, it has been found in 19 states and the fungus that causes the syndrome has been confirmed in 21. The syndrome also has been detected in four Canadian provinces, she said.

"It doesn't seem to be slowing down," Froschauer said.

"White nose syndrome is having a quick and pervasive impact on little and big brown bats," said Susan Gallo, a Maine Audubon wildlife biologist. "Of the 45 historic colonies identified by citizen scientists (in Maine) last year, only 12 had bats actually roosting -- and none of them raised any pups."


The artificial cave program at the Aroostook refuge got under way earlier this year with 30 infected male bats -- half imported from Vermont and half from New York state, Agius said. The flying mammals were placed in the sealed bunker to see if they would accept an artificial cave and "behave appropriately," by dangling upside down and snoozing. Wildlife officials re-created a somewhat stripped-down winter habitat, incorporating a small pool of water and some natural resting spots, such as hanging structures and a dead tree trunk.

All but two or three of the bats preferred the concrete walls and took up residence there, Agius said.

Throughout the winter, temperature and humidity were kept as close to the winter conditions bats seek in real caves -- 35 to 37 degrees Fahrenheit and more than 90 percent humidity. Agius said he monitored the new cave by snowmobiling out to the hut every three days and checking on the bats with a motion activated camera and infrared monitoring system.

Researchers know that the mortality rate from the disease in the bunker correlated with that found in natural caves, but that does not indicate failure. Agius said biologists are still reviewing findings about how the fungus is spread.

The whole operation wracked up only about $4,000 in expenses, not counting staff time -- much of which was volunteered, Agius said.

"I don't have a budget," Agius said, adding that he got help at various stages from researchers at Bucknell University, the University of Arizona, the University of California at Santa Cruz, state officials in Vermont and New York and other colleagues from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Everybody provided their own funding," he said.

U.S. Forest Service researchers have updated the identification of the white-nose syndrome fungus initially classified as Geomyces destructans. It recently has been identified more precisely as Pseudogymnoascus destructans, Froschauer said.

The close non-disease-causing relatives of the Geomyces destructans fungus have also been identified. Researchers believe these fungi -- many of them never seen before and still lacking formal Latin names for classification -- may disclose clues to unravel some of the puzzles of the syndrome. Researchers hope to use these fungi for study to understand why one fungus can be deadly to bats while its close relatives are seemingly harmless.

Meanwhile, Maine Audubon -- in the second year of a study conducted in partnership with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, with support provided by the Maine Outdoor Heritage Foundation -- is asking Maine residents to act as citizen scientists and help identify the locations around the state of maternal bat colonies -- where female bats group together to raise their young.

Little and big brown bat colonies are usually found in attics, barns, church eaves, old theaters, abandoned buildings, homes, garages and other structures. Audubon wants to locate as many bat colonies as possible, and interested volunteers can be taught how to estimate colony size by counting the number of bats emerging at dusk.

"Because of the devastation of (white nose syndome) on bat colonies, we are even looking for historical information," Gallo said. "If you know of a bat colony that has not seen activity this year, we still want to hear about it."

"It's really a race against time," biologist Darling said. "We make these bold steps and we learn something."

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:


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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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