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ESU professor says fungus that closed park caves killing thousands of bats

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Are recently was the first park the National Park Service system to close entrances to caves on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides in the spring because of a lethal fungus killing millions of hibernating bats nationwide called “White-Nosed Syndrome.”

East Stroudsburg University professor Howard Whidden talked about the dreaded disease that has had an impact on bats in the Poconos as well during the final lecture series program of the year hosted by the Friedns of DEWA and the rangers of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area on Nov. 12. Members of the Friends pointed out that Smokey Mountain Park also has followed suit in closing select caves and that it appears others may follow.

The lecture took pace at the Pocono Environmental Education Ccnter, although ranger Deb Nordeen of the DWGNRA assured attendees that the program will return next year to the Bushkill Meeting Center after the last three programs were rescheduled because of damage to the building and grounds from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

“This (White-Nosed Syrndrome) is an issue of great concern to the National Park Service,” said Nordeen, while introducing Whidden for an hour-long Power Point presentation. “We closed some caves and mines to the public to protect the bats.”

Whidden pointed out that the disease, which came to scientists’ attention around 2006, does not affect migrating bats that travel south for the winter but only bats that hibernate in caves during the cold season. Whidden said that six out of nine bats hibernate in caves and do not feed again until the spring but live off their own body fat. The drop in body temperature makes them vulnerable to the infectious disease, although Whidden pointed out that studies showed inexplicably that bats that go in caves in warmer climate areas where they do not need to hibernate and do not have a drop in their body temperature have had no trace of the disease.

When the disease strikes, it rouses bats from their sleep of hibernation and they often fly outside into the deadly cold air.

“White-Nose Syndrome has killed millions of bats,” said Whidden, who has led a team of student researchers in studies of their habits, which includes living by the sensation of their ultrasonic calls that help them find insects to feed on. Many kiled by the disease are found dehydrated. The research is still in its infancy and inconclusive because bats are not tracked like birds and some other animals.

“Actually, the number of bats may not be continuing to decline any worse than it has but it’s hard to tell,” Whidden said.

Along with that massive death count, Whidden pointed out that “hundreds of thousands of bats die in wind turbines,” a problem first noticed in 2004. A large number of dead bats was found as close as the Waymart Wind Farm in Wayne County.

Some are beheaded or shorn in half by the blades. Whidden said but he added it has been found, oddly, that many die because their lungs or heart burst from very low air pressure they encounter while flying near the blades.

Whidden said the problem of White-Nosed Syndrome first was detected in Howe Caverns, N.Y. and has been widespread, particularly in the northeastern United States and the Atlantic seaboard. Studies in Europe show a low incidence of White-Nosed Syndrome but Whidden said that there is a strong possibility the disease could have originated overseas.

Their value is balancing nature by feeding on insects, particularly flying ones. It’s been shown that the insect control from bats can be measured in the billions of dollars, with a survey in Lancaster County showing that bats keeping down the number of insects has led to a savings of anywhere from $3 million to $20 million.

Also, Friends of DEWA is holding its annual fundraiser and holdiay party on Dec. 3 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Mount Haven Resort in Dingman Township. There will be an Italian buffet and cash bar, with proceeds going to the Friends of Marie Zimmermann House. The cost is $35 per person, $60 per couple. Call 570-828-1422 or email herbriver@msn.com or friendsofdewa@aol.com. Check the group on facebook at Friends of Delaware Water Gap N.R.A.