PITTSBURGH — There's a fungus wiping out tens of thousands of bats in our area. At first, that might not seem like a bad thing. But fewer bats, means more bugs in your backyard all summer long. Channel 11 took a trip out to an old mine shaft with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to figure out why so many bats are disappearing.
At Canoe Creek Park in Blair County, the work doesn't start until the sun starts to set. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a busy night ahead, and it starts with setting up traps at the entrances to an old mine shaft out in the hills.
At one point, the mine housed 32-thousand bats that would swarm the night sky. A few years ago, that number was down to just 71 bats. We asked how that could happen, and were pointed toward a particular fungus causing White Nose Syndrome.
"It's a cold loving fungus and the bats are spreading it amongst each other," said Mike Scafini, and Endangered Mammal Specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Since it first appeared in the United States in 2006, White Nose Syndrome spread down the east coast and now west. The bats we saw during our visit to the mines all had it. We watched as the team tagged and measured the bats with hopes of studying the population to see what the fungus was doing to it.
At the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, the bat exhibit is packed with fruit-eating bats, but zookeeper Henry Kacprzyk talked to us about the importance of all bats.
"They are an animal that we rely on even though we don't realize it," he said. "They are such a great friend to farmer and food production here in North America."
There's another big reason we want them around. The primary food source of local bats is insects, and a lot of them.
"That's a huge number of pests, insects that aren't being eaten," Scafini said.
A little brown bat can eat up to one-thousand mosquitoes in a single hour!
White nose syndrome has killed an estimated six million bats in North America, so you can imagine what that means for the local bug population. The Game Commission says that has a lot of people missing their furry flying friends.
"We get calls all the time, when people see a bat now they are actually excited, because it's not like 10 years ago where you'd see bats flying all night long," Scafini said.
Fewer bats can also mean a big profit loss for Pennsylvania farmers. Every year, bats provide billions of dollars of insect control for farms in the US. The Game Commission wants people to call about possible bat locations, but says it is important to remember to leave bats alone.
"Going into a cave when they are in hibernation and disturbing them at that time and carrying that in is, could be a death sentence," said Kacprzyk.
Pennsylvania is testing a spray in some caves to try and keep the fungus at bay. But at this point, it's mostly up to the bats to adapt to the fungus and stay alive during hibernation season.
Cox Media Group