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Experts fear bat extinction

July 04, 2010 at 02:15 PM

MAUCKPORT, Ind. (AP) - A fungus that has killed nearly a million East Coast bats and closed caves in southern Indiana could lead to the extinction of some species within five years, experts say.

“It’s definitely near the realm of an ecological disaster,” said Brooke Slack, a bat biologist at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

White Nose Syndrome has been confirmed in 14 states, but Indiana and Kentucky have been spared so far.

The fungus forms a white covering that irritates the bats’ faces and wings, burns up their fat reserves and awakens them early from hibernation, leaving them struggling to find food and water in the harsh winter conditions. Affected bats exhibit unusual behavior, such as flying during the day, and eventually starve or freeze.

Nine bat species have been infected so far, but the U.S. Geological Survey says as many as 25 hibernating species are potentially at risk.

Indiana has one of the densest bat populations in the country.

Claudia Yundt, manager of Squire Boone Caverns in Mauckport, Ind., said the loss of thousands of bats could mean food growers must use more pesticides. Bats are natural predators, eating as many as 5,000 insects each night. Many farmers build dwellings for bats near fields to reduce the amount of insecticides they use.

“They are the chief predator of night-flying insects,” Yundt said of bats. “That’s their main goal in life: to eat as many insects as they can.”

At least 20 states have closed caves until officials determine how the fungus is spread. Indiana has closed most of its caves. The only exception to the state closure is Twin Caves at Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell, where all visitors are transported by boat.

Federal officials have also closed caves in the Hoosier National Forest, while commercial caves such as Squire Boone Caverns, Marengo Cave and Blue Springs Caverns remain open.

But Slack f ears bats will continue to die, forcing new regulations to protect them from extinction.

“We’re doing everything we can to educate and prevent it from devastating our bat population,” Slack said.

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