Maryland's Bat Caves

New research is shedding light - ultraviolet light - on a disease that has devastated western Maryland's bats

By Severn Smith on February 15, 2018

After 20 years of watching bat numbers grow, Daniel Feller made a heartbreaking discovery in 2010: a disease called white-nose syndrome had reached the Central Appalachians and had begun to devastate the bat populations of western Maryland.

White-nose syndrome was introduced to the U.S. in 2006 by humans who inadvertently carried it from Europe to a cave near Albany, NY. The disease spread rapidly and has since killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America. In some wintering areas (called hibernacula), 90 to 100 percent of the bats have died.
Despite a seemingly gloomy outlook, new research from the USDA Forest Service gives Dan hope. A study, published January 2, 2018 in the journal Nature Communications, shows that ultraviolet rays break down the fungus that causes white-nose. The study results might provide clues for stopping the deadly disease.

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Dan Feller preparing equipment during the 2018 bat survey.  Photo © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy

Dan Feller is the Western Regional Ecologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service.  He has been leading a statewide survey of bats since 1990 alongside partners in academia, government and The Nature Conservancy.

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Brown bats. The bat on the right (not part of the Maryland survey) displays the tell-tale sign that gives white-nose syndrome its name.  Photo © Kent Mason (L); Ryan von Linden / New York Department of Environmental Conservation (R)

White-nose syndrome is named for the white fungus that attaches itself to dormant bats.  It causes them to fly around and use up the energy stored from eating small insects - energy they need to see them through winter hibernation.

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Photo © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy

Dr. Richard Raesly, Professor of Biology, Frostburg State University, prepares to inspect a tricolored bat for white-nose syndrome during the 2018 bat survey.

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Photo © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy

Dan and Rich study a hibernating tricolored bat in an abandoned limestone mine. In some cases, mines offer better hibernaculum in the face of white-nose syndrome than natural caves due to increased air circulation in mines.

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A hibernating tricolored bat (Perimyotis subflavus). Photo © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy 

Formerly known as the eastern pipistrelle, the tricolored bat's new, more descriptive common name was chosen because of the distinct coloration of each hair, which is black at the base, yellow in the middle and brown at the tips.

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Photo © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy

Bats can squeeze through openings the size of a dime - it takes a little more effort, and an appreciation for tight spaces, for the researchers who traverse these bat mines.

The Nature Conservancy works closely with the Maryland DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service to protect the ecologically-fragile caves – especially for their hibernating inhabitants who are fighting for survival.

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Photo © Kent Mason

Bats are a critical component in a healthy forest ecosystem.  They also provide significant agricultural pest control and pollination. Their survival is essential to our Appalachian forests.

The Nature Conservancy is working to keep the forests of the Central Appalachians connected and healthy in the face of climate change and other invasive threats such as white-nose.

Categories: Central Appalachians, Resilient Forests,

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