West Virginia: From the field
Tue, Mar 24 2009 at 5:27 PM
By The Nature Conservancy
“White-nose syndrome” is killing tens of thousands of hibernating bats in caves throughout the Northeast, now including West Virginia – where it was confirmed in early 2009.
The syndrome was first discovered at bat hibernacula (winter hibernation sites) in New York in 2007. With more and more sites of infection reported since, biologists anticipate up to 95 percent of bats in the Northeast could die within the next two years — an estimated loss of 500,000 bats.
Very little is known yet about white-nose syndrome. The tell-tale sign is a snowy fungus that can appear on the nose, ears and wings, though not all afflicted bats exhibit this fungus. Scientists believe the fungus is a symptom, not a cause, of the problem. Other symptoms include dehydration and emaciation, causing bats to rouse out of hibernation early and look for food and water. Because scientists do not yet know how the condition is spread, the Conservancy in West Virginia asks that people stay out of caves to avoid possible transmission, and has posted signs to that effect at each of its cave entrances.
The impact of a massive loss of bats on humans and nature is largely unknown. Bats can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes and other insects a night, providing natural pest control for farmers and helping keep insect populations in check. It’s estimated that a significant loss of bats means we could have billions more insects.
In 2008, the Conservancy completed a project to restore native red spruce and Canaan balsam fir in critical wetland areas within Canaan Valley. In all, 7,500 red spruce and 500 Canaan balsam fir were planted in an effort to restore traditional populations, which support such rare species as the West Virginia flying squirrel and the Cheat Mountain salamander. Populations of both tree species have declined in West Virginia in recent decades - the red spruce from logging early in the last century and the Canaan balsam fir from an invasive exotic insect, the balsam woolly adelgid.
In addition to tree restoration work, the Conservancy is working to combat invasive plant species in the region. Because the broad-leaved cattail can choke out native species and overtake wetland areas, the Conservancy has continued its efforts to control cattail stands along the Blackwater River and North Branch wetlands, which harbor numerous rare plant communities that play an integral role in the ecosystem at large.
MNN is working with The Nature Conservancy to bring you state-by-state environmental information.