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Exploradio: The edge of extinction
A team of researchers and wildlife officials in Ohio are fighting an epidemic that threatens to wipe out bats in the Eastern U.S.
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


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Jeff St. Clair
 
Summit MetroParks is blocking several caves at Liberty Park in Twinsburg with steel gates. A barrier also blocks Ice Box cave at Virginia Kendall park. Officials fear that White Nose Syndrome can be spread by contaminated soil on hikers' shoes.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair
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Bats are under siege.  A killer fungus has wiped out 90% of bats in parts of the Eastern U.S. and this year the epidemic hit Ohio.  Researchers and wildlife officials here are scrambling to save the remaining bats.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair reports from the front-lines in the fight against White Nose Syndrome.

Exploradio: The Edge of Extinction

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Univ. of Akron researcher Hazel Barton, left, and grad-student Kelsey Njus inspect cultures of a fungus that lives on the skin of bats.  Geomyces destructans is the fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome, a deadly disease that is killing millions of American bats.
A Summit MetroParks crew installs a gate across a narrow cave in the sandstone cliff at Liberty Park in Twinsburg.  Three caves will be gated this year.  The caves shelter close to 100,000 hibernating bats -  that is before the arrival of the disease.
Ryan Boyes guides a drill into the mouth of a cave in Twinsburg.
Tony Morgan, left, and Ryan Boyes, right, enjoy the cool air of a bat cave as they install a gate across its mouth.  They hauled their equipment far off the trail in a secluded section of Liberty Park in Twinsburg in an effort to keep people out of the caves contaminated with White Nose fungus.
A completed gate guards the cave that houses the largest colony of bats.  Officials say tens of thousands of bats normally overwinter here, but WNS may soon kill 95% of them.
Wildlife specialist Mike Johnson soaks his boots in bleach to remove traces of White Nose fungus that may have cling to them.  Cavers across the country must sterilize equipment after venturing into contaminated caves.
A little brown bat, formerly the country's most common species, has been hard hit by WNS.  The fungus is noticable as a white patch on the bats nose.  WNS is nearly always fatal.  It attacks hibernating bats, weakening them during their most vulnerable period.
Federal wildlife researchers take samples of a big brown bat, looking for signs of WNS on it's wing.  Bats' wings are especially prone to the disease that is named after the trademark white nose.
A map show the spread of WNS (White Nose Syndrome).
Hazel Barton, left, and grad-student Kelsey Njus in Barton's University of Akron lab.  Barton's lab is studying how the killer fungus survives in the cool, moist cave environment and how to fight its spread.

Why bats matter
First, we need to get past the 'ick' factor with bats. 

  • They do not turn into vampires.
  • They rarely fly into bouffant hairdos.
  • They do not drink your blood, except in parts of the Brazilian rain forest.

What bats do, though, is consume a lot of bugs. Hazel Barton, a researcher at the University of Akron, says a single bat can eat 3,600 hundred insects in a night.  She says the epidemic wiping out bats in the Eastern U.S. is radically changing our ecosystems by the removal of these important insect predators.  

She says the loss of 6.5 million bats from the white nose epidemic, "translates to a hundred billion more insects this year than we would have had if those bats were still alive.”

Bats eat insects that attack crops - moths whose caterpillars feed on fruit trees, beetles whose larva eat soybeans or potatoes … bats eat disease carrying mosquitoes.  The loss of bats could cost billions in lost crops and increased use of pesticides.  The looming extinction of several bat species is not just an ecological tragedy; it could be catastrophic to our food growing economy. 

The epidemic spreads 
White nose syndrome first appeared in 2006 in a cave in New York. It is believed to have arrived from Europe on the sole of a hiker’s boot.  Then infected bats spread the fungus along the Atlantic seaboard, north to Ontario, south to the Smoky Mountains, and west all the way to Missouri, leaving millions of dead bats in its wake.  

That’s why a crew is deep in the woods at Liberty MetroPark in Twinsburg welding steel bars across the mouth of a narrow cave.  Tony Morgan and Ryan Boyes bend steel around the contours of a slit cave that dives deep into a sandstone cliff.

The bars are spaced wide enough for bats to fly through, but prevent people from going inside and tracking out invisible spores of the deadly fungus. 

Mike Johnson, chief of wildlife for Summit Metroparks, directs the project.  He says the cave shelters tens of thousands of hibernating bats from four species -  big brown, little brown, tri-color, and northern long-eared bats.  Like a blast of air conditioning, cool air from deep inside the cliff hits the late summer heat.   

The white nose fungus can only live in the cool conditions of caves like this one, and on the chilled bodies of hibernating bats. 

Hope from the survivors
Last year’s mild weather allowed most bats to survive despite the arrival of White Nose Syndrome.  But Johnson is not optimistic about this season.  He says out of those tens of thousands, even one-hundred thousand hibernating bats,"we’re expecting 95% of them to die.”

He says the gates will keep hikers from disturbing the few bats that may survive.  And it’s those few survivors that scientists intend to study.  Hazel Barton and her team at the University of Akron will crawl through a small hole in the bat gate this winter to sample sleeping bats.  They’re hoping to isolate compounds on the surviving bats’ skin that may hold clues to a natural immunity to the fungus, and perhaps lead to a cure.  But for now the plan is to slow the spread of the disease, and the bat gates may be their best hope. 

I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio.   


Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio - The march of the bat killer
Monday, January 23, 2012

 
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