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Vermont Bats Looking Free of White Nose Syndrome

Jul 07, 2014 12:33 PM EDT

Researchers have good news about little brown bats in Vermont. It appears that a small colony of the tiny bats who hibernated in a Dorset cave last winter slept easy, showing no signs of the white nose syndrome (WNS) that has been causing brown bats across the country to wake and die during winter months.

Strikingly similar to colony collapse disorder seen in bees, WNS causes confused bats to wake from their winter hibernation and leave their caves. In the inclement weather of winter, the incredibly small animals quickly die, leading to massively reduced numbers by springtime.

According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the disease was first identified in New York State in late 2006 and has since spread throughout the eastern United States (as far as Mississippi) and Canada. It is characterized by a white fungal infection that covers the muzzle and wings of small brown bats. The fungus saps strength from the wintering bats and has killed more than 5.7 million bats - with some colonies facing a 90 to 100 percent decline.

Researchers have recently determined that the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans can cause this disease, and the FWS in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service has been closing caves and mines that are home to the harmful fungus.

Now, however, researchers with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife have determined that more than 96 percent of a sample colony of brown bats have weathered this past winter without coming down with WNS, according to the Associated Press (AP).

More than 440 bats that wintered in the Aeolus cave in Dorset, Vt. were tagged by researchers prior to their hibernation. The researchers then placed an electronic counter that would measure how many left the cave come springtime.

The equipment recorded that 192 bats left the cave during the spring, but after accounting for tagged bats who likely wound up hibernating elsewhere, the research team estimated that more than 90 percent survived. Even with just the raw data, the researchers are seeing a 43 percent survival rate - a massive improvement compared to the 99 percent decline when WNS first hit Vermont.

"If we've seen that many bats pass through at the correct time, and behave what we would call normally, that's really exciting," Alyssa Bennett, a biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the AP. She is hopeful that the worst of the WNS outbreak is almost over.

Last month, Nature World News reported that brown bats in-part have actually adapted to the colony collapse problems caused by WNS, becoming more social creatures to ensure the survival of the species.

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