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Old military bunkers could house bats threatened by deadly fungus

April 11, 2013|By Louis Sahagun
  • A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome, so called because of the powdery, white substance that appears around the muzzles, ears and wings of affected bats. Retired military bunkers might be used to house and treat wintering bats threatened by the deadly fungus, which has decimated bat communities in 22 states.
A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome, so called because of the powdery,… (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service…)

Decommissioned military bunkers on national wildlife refuges could be transformed into artificial hibernation chambers for wintering bat populations devastated by the lethal fungus known as white-nose syndrome, according to an investigation by federal biologists.

Temperature-controlled bunkers -- decontaminated in summer -- would enable biologists to monitor behavior and administer possible treatments that might delay the progression of the diseaseamong bats housed there the following winter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Steve Agius said.

The notion was tested in December 2012 at a bunker in the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in Limestone, Maine, Agius said.

Thirty hibernating male little brown bats collected in New York and Vermont were placed in the bunker, which had been outfitted with shallow pools of water to slake their thirst and boost humidity. The bats hibernated in clusters on the bunker walls, and occasionally drank from the pools.

Although only 10 of the bats survived transport and hibernation, biologists were pleased with the results. “Our survival rate was far higher than what we are finding in the bat’s natural environment,” Agius said.

White-nose syndrome has decimated little brown bat populations across eastern North America, with mortality rates reaching up to 100% at some cave sites.

The deadly bat epidemic, which was discovered in New York in 2006, has now been confirmed in five Canadian provinces and 22 states as far west as Missouri. It has killed mostly little brown bats -- one of the most common mammals in North America -- which have lost an estimated 20% of their population in the northeastern United States.

White-nose syndrome, which can be transmitted between animals through direct contact, gets its name from the powdery, white substance that appears around muzzles, ears and wings of affected bats.

Bats with white-nose syndrome exhibit unusual behavior during cold winter months, including flying outside during the day and clustering near the entrances of caves and mines where they hibernate. Bats have been found sick and dying in unprecedented numbers near these hibernacula during a portion of the year when there are no insects to eat.


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