By Molly Daly
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) --- Pennsylvania's bat population has been all but wiped out by White Nose Syndrome, caused by a non-native fungus that thrives in the cold damp caves and mines in which bats hibernate.
One Bucks County site that sheltered 10,000 wintering bats is now empty.
"We're looking at a 99% decline overall of all our bats," said Pennsylvania Game Commission Endangered Mammal Specialist Greg Turner.
Turner said it's all because of White Nose Syndrome, caused by a fungus that has been found on bats in Europe, which may have developed a resistance to it.
That's not the case with North American bats. There are six species of hibernating bats in the state, and according to Turner, "It's hitting four of them really hard: the Little Brown Bat, the Northern Long-Eared Bat, the federally endangered Indiana Bat, and the Tricolored Bat."
The name White Nose Syndrome refers to the cottony fungus that coats an infected bat's muzzle and wings.
"It creates a lot of lesions across all of their wing membranes, and for a really small animal like a bat, these wings are major organs," he said.
The pain from the lesions wakes hibernating bats, drains their energy, and forces the weakened and dehydrated creatures to go out in the cold in search of insects that aren't there. Few survive.
Since bats are the top predators of night-flying insects, like moths and mosquitoes, their absence will likely prove costly.
"If we were to see something like an increase in West Nile Virus, or an increase in crop damage," says Turner, "we may see higher gas costs, higher food costs, more chemicals being spread into the environment."
Turner says the fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome is here to stay.
"My biggest hope is that we're working with populations that do have some survivors, and we know that they're reproducing," he said. "And so I'm hopeful there's something that can be learned, or some trait that can be passed on genetically from mother to young that will enable them to deal with this infection."
He says he doesn't think there's any realistic way to remove the fungus.
"We might be able to reduce it and lower its ability to impact the bats, but it's always going to be there, and so we have to hope these juveniles will somehow survive, and keep the species persisting in our state."
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