ALBANY, N.Y. – Bats afflicted with a mysterious and deadly disorder might be able to make it through winter with the help of heated boxes placed in hibernation caves, a pair of researchers say.
The biologists stress that the boxes being tested this winter are not intended to cure "white-nose syndrome," which has killed upward of a half million bats in three winters from New England to West Virginia.
But, in an article published online Thursday in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, they suggest the little heated havens could help stricken bats preserve enough precious energy to survive hibernation season.
White-nose syndrome, named for the white smudges of fungus on the noses and wings of hibernating bats, has alarmed scientists by spreading from a few caves in upstate New York two winters ago to at least 55 caves in seven states. White-nose bats appear to starve to death, running through their winter fat stores before spring.
Researchers worry about the fate of bats, which play an important role in controlling the populations of insects that can damage wheat, apples and dozens of other crops.
As scientists try to definitively establish whether the fungus is the cause, as suspected, or a symptom of white nose, researchers Justin Boyles and Craig Willis considered a way to manage it based on computer modeling of the energy expended by bats.
Based on the theory that afflicted bats rouse from hibernation more often than normal bats and thus burn more fat to stay warm, they suggest that small bat boxes with battery-powered heating coils could create warm refuges for the creatures.
"It would be sort of a stopgap measure," said Willis, a biology professor at the University of Winnipeg. Boyles, the lead author, is a graduate student in biology at Indiana State University.
Hibernating bats will seek warmer parts of caves during bouts of activity. The pair will test whether healthy bats will use heated boxes instead during a test in the coming months in a cave in Manitoba, Canada. The pilot study is funded with a $28,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There are potential problems with a mass deployment of heaters that go beyond the logistics and cost. Willis concedes that such an intervention could backfire if white nose is spread from bat to bat in the summer, since it would prolong the survival of infected bats.
But David Blehert, who identified the white-nose fungus as head of microbiology at the U.S. Geological Survey's Wildlife Health Center, said summer spreading is not a concern with this fungus, which needs cold to thrive. Blehert and other researchers said that given the magnitude of the problem, it makes sense to at least test the hypothesis.
"It's not a magic silver bullet," Blehert said, "but it might provide some percentage of bats with a fighting chance to survive hibernation."