Bats may be the stuff of nightmares, but they are facing a nightmare of their own. A mysterious disease is wiping out bats in caves in the northeast United States, and experts say it could reach Oklahoma. "It’s not safe to say that any of our bats are safe at this point,” said Merlin Tuttle, founder and president of Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas. "This is by far the most devastating threat that’s ever been seen to bats in our history.” The worst-case scenario is that white-nose syndrome could be here in less than two years, Tuttle said. It certainly will reach the state in several years unless scientists stop it, he said. "It would be really irresponsible to not be watching for it, but we don’t need to panic,” said Mike Caywood, park manager at Alabaster Caverns State Park near Freedom in northwest Oklahoma. The caverns are the winter home to nearly 14,000 bats, he said. Millions of bats live in Oklahoma locations such as the Selman bat cave near Woodward, where bat watches begin each July, said Melynda Hickman, wildlife biologist with the state Wildlife Conservation Department. The disease has killed more than 1 million bats in the Northeast, according to researchers’ estimates. "We don’t have any way to account for the way bats are dying,” Tuttle said. "We’re finding thousands and thousands of dead and dying bats on the cave floors.” A white fungus on bats’ noses may be the cause of deaths or a symptom of whatever is causing deaths, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says. First noticed in 2006 in an Albany, N.Y., cave, the fungus may cause hibernating bats to wake up early and then too quickly use their fat reserves before insects are out, said Barbara French, science officer with Bat Conservation International. The Oklahoma bats considered most at risk are the gray bat and the Indiana bat. Many hibernate in private caves in eastern Oklahoma where gates provided by the federal and state wildlife departments protect the bats while allowing them access to the caves, Hickman said. But about two-thirds of the state’s bats don’t hang around in caves, where researchers suspect the cold-loving fungus is a greater threat. The state’s common eastern red bats, for example, hang in trees and look like dead leaves.
Why care about bats?As these critters go, so go their voracious appetites for mosquitoes. State wildlife officials say Oklahoma’s 1 million migratory Mexican free-tailed bats eat 10 tons of mosquitoes and other insects every night. "If we lose our bat populations, we are likely to see a serious increase in insects,” French said. "It’s a bad thing to lose.” Tuttle said one of the most abundant bats, the little brown bat, could be wiped out if the disease isn’t stopped. "We have never seen anything before that has killed off bats like this,” he said. "It’s not unthinkable we could be facing extinction of some species.”
Q&A ON BATSQ: Is the bat disease in Oklahoma? A: The 14,000 hibernating bats at Alabaster Caverns State Park were counted Feb. 14 and no symptoms of white-nose syndrome were spotted, said Mike Caywood, park manager. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released an advisory March 26 about the disease. The advisory doesn’t apply to commercial caves, but it asks cavers to avoid caves with hibernating bats in affected states and adjacent states. People can spread the disease from cave to cave. Q: Where is the disease? A: States where the disease has been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. Q: What kinds of bats live in Oklahoma? A: Oklahoma has these species of bat: southeast bat, gray bat, Keen’s bat, small-footed bat, little brown bat, Indiana bat, cave myotis, Yuma bat, silver haired bat, eastern pipistrel, western pipistrel, Bib brown bat, evening bat, pallid bat, Ozark big-eared bat, red bat, hoary bat, Seminole bat, Mexican free-tailed bat, big free-tailed bat, Rafinesque’s big-eared bat and Townsend’s big-eared bat. Q: Where can I get more information? A: For more information on the disease, go to www.batcon.org or www.fws.gov/northeast/white_nose.html. For information on the Selman Bat Watch, a project of the state Wildlife Conservation Department, call Melynda Hickman at 424-0099 or go to www.wildlifedepartment.com/BatWatchWeb/WhatToExpect.html. SONYA COLBERG, STAFF WRITER