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Fatal disease observed in abandoned Washington County mine where bat population is dwindling

May 11, 2012|By DAVE McMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com

Officials 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 began 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 in March, 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.

Park officials declined to say where the mine is because they don’t want anyone to enter it, C&O Canal spokeswoman Peggie Gaul said.

They don’t want people to disturb the bats or risk transmitting the disease to other areas by getting traces of white-nose syndrome on their clothes, Gaul said.

When officials enter 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, when the average for the past five years has been about 268 bats per survey.

White-nose syndrome is a disease caused by the fungus that is responsible for the deaths of millions of bats in eastern North America, the release said.

Although the cause of death in bats due to white-nose syndrome is unknown, the disease results in bats becoming restless during hibernation. Their movement results in burning up necessary fat reserves or losing body fluid, the release said. 

There is no known cure for the disease, which is the target of ongoing research to find a 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, the release said.

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.

At least six of those bat species 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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