Researchers at Boston University and elsewhere in the last five years have sounded the alarm over the rapid disappearance of bats from New England and the nation’s night sky.
Now, the federal government may step in to better protect the winged mammals by possibly listing two species – eastern small-footed and the northern long-eared bats – on the endangered species list. The bats are threatened by a fungus called white nose syndrome.
US Fish and Wildlife Service officials say they are concerned enough about the fate of the two species of bats that they will conduct an in-depth status review to determine if they should be listed. The agency is also doing a preliminary review of the more common little brown bat and four other bat species to determine if they also need protection, in part because of white nose syndrome.
Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said her advocacy group welcomes the move. “If action isn’t taken to close caves in uninfected areas . . . we will lose these two bat species and perhaps many others,’’ said Matteson.
The center filed a petition early last year asking the service to list the two species as threatened or endangered.
If any bat species are ultimately listed, it would probably result in bat habitat protection, setting up potential conflicts with wind farms whose blades can kill bats, as well as with mining and logging.
White nose syndrome, first discovered in 2006, has decimated some bat populations in the Northeast and is rapidly spreading across the country.
The disease has been confirmed in 16 states and the fungus has been discovered on bats in three other states. It has been confirmed in six bat species and three other species have been found with it.
Scientists first thought the fungus was topical – think athlete’s foot – and bats were dying from loss of energy reserves as the fungus caused them to scratch in hibernation.
But now, there is emerging evidence the fungus is invading live tissue, interrupting bats’ physiological processes, such as temperature regulation and the ability to stay hydrated.
In the Western Massachusetts town of Chester, where thousands of bats once inhabited old graphite mines, residents say they no longer see them in the night sky.
“They are pretty much gone, sadly,’’ said Richie Small, owner of Richie’s General Service, an auto repair shop in Chester. “They are very scarce and we don’t have nearly the bat populations we once had.’’
Now, he added, “the mosquitoes are doing fine.’’
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