Researchers Concerned After Bat Disease Spreads To NC

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None - Researchers are concerned because a new disease that has already killed hundreds of thousands of bats is now being found in North Carolina.

Eyewitness News reporter Dave Faherty spent the night with a crew of bat biologists to find out how they're working to stop the spread of the disease.

Officials said bats are especially important during the summer months.

"(Brown bats) can eat up to two tons of insects over the course of a summer, so bats consume a lot of insects," said Corinne Diggins with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. "A little brown bat can eat its weight in insects in one night."

But White Nose Syndrome, a disease that only affects bats, is killing them by the hundreds of thousands across the eastern U.S. It was first discovered in a cave in New York in 2006. In five years, it spread to 16 states and Canada. This year, it reached caves in four counties in North Carolina where biologists discovered dead bats.

"The little brown bats were really the most common in the northeast before White Nose hit, and White Nose decimated them, killing up to a million bats," said Mike LaVoie, a biologist with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

To capture and study bats, the biologists set up nets, some of which extend 20 feet above the ground, around sunset. Minutes after raising the nets, they captured their first bat.

The animals are weighed and measured and studied for signs of White Nose Syndrome.

"We're looking for any discoloration, which would indicate scarring from damage. It could be due to White Nose Syndrome," said biologist Gabrielle Graeter, with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Biologists said the fungus is the most dangerous during the winter months, when hundreds of bats hibernate together in caves. In some parts of the country, the disease has wiped out 90 percent of the bats in caves where the fungus was found.

"We're very, very concerned that we could see a huge crash in some of our species and the potential effects of that could be huge," Graeter said.

Because there has been some evidence that humans may inadvertently spread the disease from cave to cave, the state has issued an advisory asking people to stay out of the caves. The biologists studying the bats decontaminated all of their clothing and equipment before leaving.

The bats captured that night were released after being studied.

"Right now, there is no known cure and basically we are just trying to stop the spread and contain (it), but there's a lot more questions than answers," LaVoie said.

More Information: National Wildlife Health Center - White Nose Syndrome