Friday, February 08, 2008

Sharp drop in N.E. bat population could hurt crops

Thousands of bats are dying in caves of the Northeastern U.S., and while scientists aren't sure why, they do know that a lack of bats could hurt the area's agriculture, reports Beth Daley of The Boston Globe.

"A mysterious illness is sickening and killing thousands of hibernating bats in New York and Vermont, baffling scientists who fear that tens of thousands more may be dying in abandoned mines and dark caves throughout the Northeast," Daley writes. "Humans are not believed to be at risk from the disease, but the death of large numbers of bats could indirectly affect New Englanders: Bats devour crop pests, midges, and mosquitoes."

Scientists first spotted the disease in Albany, N.Y., in January 2007. By March, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation had found 11,000 bats had died from what scientists dubbed "white nose syndrome," called that "because of a flaky white fungus on the nose of many of the sick and dead bats," Daley writes. (Above, bats afflicted with the illness in a photo by DEC's Nancy Heaslip.) Recently the disease has been spotted in more places, including Vermont, and it has been affecting the Indiana bat, an endangered species. The affected area is growing: sick bats have been found as much as 135 miles apart.

Many labs are searching for answers to the mystery, and the best theory so far is that the disease has been spread by humans since the affected caves are popular with cavers. (Read more) Hat tip to Al Tompkins and his "Morning Meeting" for the link.

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