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Deadly fungus confirmed in West Virginia bats

February 24, 2009 | 10:54 am

Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome.

The results are in, and the news is not good. The U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center has confirmed that bats from West Virginia caves have tested positive for the deadly fungal disease white-nose syndrome. There is a possibility that the incurable disease has been detected in colonies hibernating in New Hampshire as well, indicating that it is continuing to spread.

Bat deaths due to infection are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, with the largest impact on little brown bat populations, the most common species in the United States.

While researchers have identified the fungus, they haven't yet discovered a cure and there is fear that it will spread nationwide.

"The cause for concern is that this is going to race across the country faster than we can come up with a solution," said Alan Hicks, a wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Distinguished by white smudges on the muzzles, wings and ears of hibernating bats, the disease was discovered two years ago among populations in New York caves. The condition is decimating colonies, killing more than 90% of some.

Infected bats awaken from hibernation early because they have used up their reserves of body fat.  They will leave caves in a search of insects that have not yet emerged and die during their search for food.

Though the fungus poses no threat to humans, the decline of bat populations may have a detrimental effect as the mammals help control the proliferation of mosquitoes and other insects that  could carry diseases such as West Nile virus.

-- Kelly Burgess

Photo:  Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome. Credit:  Nancy Heaslip/New York State Department of Environmental Conservation