RUMFORD — A fungus that has killed more than a million bats across eastern and southern North America was found last month in bats in Maine hibernating sites.
White-nose syndrome was discovered in bats in two inactive mine caves in Oxford County, but not in a third site checked in northern Maine, said John DePue of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“There are three bat (hibernating sites) that we know of in Maine, and up until last year, we had no evidence in the bats of the fungus,” he said. “And we were kind of surprised given that bats at sites just across the border in New Hampshire and Quebec were infected.”
Maine has eight species of bats: Eastern pipistrelle, big brown bat, little brown myotis, Eastern small-footed myotis, Northern myotis, Eastern red bat, hoary bat, and the silver-haired bat.
DePue said the disease, which is not harmful to humans, has been found only in the little brown bat and the Northern long-eared bat in Maine.
“Unfortunately, this year when we surveyed one of the sites, we found clear evidence of white-nose syndrome, but no dead bats,” DePue said. “And then at the second site we visited, the bats had clear signs of the syndrome and we found five carcasses.”
White-nose syndrome, named for a deadly white fungus found on the noses of affected bats, is associated with the newly discovered fungus, Geomyces destructans, DePue said.
The dead bats were sent to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., for confirmation of the disease.
DePue said the carcasses tested positive for the syndrome.
Geomyces invades under the skin of bats into the dermal tissue, said Ann Froschauer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National White-Nose Syndrome communications leader in Holyoke, Mass.
Researchers don’t yet know how the fungus kills bats, but they suspect it causes them to awaken earlier than normal during hibernation and burn through winter fat reserves, she said.
The fungus thrives in cold temperatures and high humidity and is most commonly found in little brown bats, Froschauer said
“Little brown bats are one of our most widely distributed species, so this has potentially very far-reaching effects,” she said.
Little brown bats also hibernate in large clusters, increasing the likelihood that the disease will spread.
First found at caves and mines in New York during the winter of 2006-07, white-nose syndrome is believed to have originated in Europe, Froschauer said.
But it’s not affecting European bats like it is in North America.
Froschauer said an infected bat could have stowed away in cargo brought to the nation or researchers or cavers could have unwittingly tracked spores of the fungus to the New York sites.
Which is why state and federal officials are not identifying the exact locations of the Maine sites. Other reasons, Froschauer said, are that caves are protected by the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 and the Maine sites are on private property.
DePue said pre-syndrome populations at the three sites were 350 to 400 bats in the largest bat cave in Oxford County, where the disease was found, 60 to 80 bats at another site, and 40 to 60 bats at the third site.
Many people associate bats with eating mosquitoes, but in painting a worst-case scenario, Froschauer said bats also eat insects that can devastate agricultural produce and forests if left unchecked.
One bat can eat as many as 3,000 flying insects a night during the summer, but females only produce one bat pup a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That’s why Maine and federal wildlife officials are so concerned.
To help reduce the spread of white-nose syndrome, people are asked to:
* Not handle live or dead bats. Contact wildlife biologist John DePue at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at 287-8000 or www.mefishwildlife.com.
* Not enter caves or mines in Maine during the winter hibernation months. Disturbing bats during hibernation causes them to use limited fat reserves and could cause death in already health-compromised bats.
* Allow bats to rear their pups and exit structures at summer’s end before closing off entrance holes if people learn there are bats roosting in their homes. Such people are advised to provide bats with a bat house for when they return the following year.
For the most up-to-date cave and mine closures and decontamination procedures, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service White-Nose Syndrome website at: www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome.