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Fungal infection seen in declining bat population at Washington Co. mine

White-nose syndrome seen during surveys last month

April 29, 2012|By DAVE McMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY — Authorities investigating a disease that kills bats have noticed a severe decline in a bat population in an abandoned cement mine in Washington County.

The number of bats in the mine is the lowest since monitoring of the problem was started in 1998, according to the National Park Service.

White-nose syndrome — named for a white fungus that forms on the faces of infected bats  — was observed in the old cement mine during bat surveys conducted last month, according to a news release from the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

White fungal growth indicative of white-nose syndrome was observed on most little brown bats and tricolor bats hibernating in the mine, the release said.

C&O Canal spokeswoman Peggie Gaul said last week that park officials do not want to say where the mine is because they do not want people to enter it.

Park officials do not want people to disturb the bats or to risk transmiting the disease to other areas by getting traces of white-nose syndrome on their clothes, Gaul said.

When officials go into the mine complex, they try not to disturb the bats and count only the ones they can see, said Michelle Carter, natural resources program manager for the C&O Canal.

Carter said 76 bats were counted in the mine in March and the average for the past five years has been about 268 bats per survey.

White-nose syndrome is a disease caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans and is responsible for the deaths of millions of bats in eastern North America, according to the release.

Although the cause of death in bats due to white-nose syndrome is unknown, the disease results in bats becoming restless during hibernation, according to the release.

Their movement results in burning up necessary fat reserves or losing body fluid, the release said. 

There is no known cure for the disease and there is ongoing research to find its cure, according to the release and Gaul.

Bats are important components of natural ecosystems and can benefit humans by eating large quantities of insect pests, according to the release.

The C&O Canal is home to 10 bat species and the largest hibernating population of bats in the state of Maryland, the release said.

Of the 10 known species that reside in the park, at least six that hibernate in park caves, tunnels and mines are susceptible to white-nose syndrome. Park mines and tunnels used by hibernating bats are closed to the public to minimize the chance of spreading the disease to other areas.

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