This story was written for The Boston Globe's metro section. It appeared Dec. 9. 2012.
By Gal Tziperman Lotan
They took a few minutes to emerge from their sleeping nooks, but the moment the ruwenzori longhaired fruit bats started swooping back and forth in their Franklin Park Zoo habitat Saturday morning, 8-year-old Miriam Parrucci lit up.
Miri, a third-grader from Havertown, Pa., has loved bats since her mother read her “Stellaluna,” a book about a bat who raised by birds, when she was a year old.
And she has worried about bats since she read an article in her second-grade class about white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by fungus that is devastating hibernating bats in North America.
“It’s a fungus that lives in caves, and it affects bats that hibernate,” she said Saturday. “Bats are my favorite animals, and they are going to be extinct.”
Her parents, Lynn and Paul, drove Miri and her 13-year-old brother, John, to Boston on Friday so Miri could visit the Kunz Bat Lab at Boston University, where researchers are studying the fungus. They also stopped at the zoo to see live bats, which the lab does not keep.
Ann Froschauer, national white-nose syndrome communications leader for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said she heard about Miri’s love of bats and organized the visit to encourage her interest and maybe help her become a bat biologist, which Miri said she wants to be when she grows up.
“White-nose syndrome is kind of hard to understand, it’s complicated,” Froschauer said. “The fact that she was already interested in bats and she kind of gets the disease means she’s already ahead.”
The ruwenzori longhaired fruit bats that Miri saw are native to eastern Africa and are not affected by white-nose syndrome. But the fungus has seriously affected seven bat species and nearly devastated the little brown bat, which was common in New England. Before the fungus spread, the little brown bat population had been steadily increasing for two to three decades, said Alison Robbins, director of a master’s in conservation medicine program at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
White-nose syndrome has been found in 19 US states and four Canadian provinces since 2006 , killing about 5.5 million bats, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
White-nose syndrome causes insectivorous hibernating bats to wake up in midwinter and go looking for food. The bats fly outside, sometimes during the day, which is abnormal, to find food and water, said Robbins. Most of the bats die of starvation or dehydration because there are fewer insects for them to eat in winter.
“Nobody knows what effects losing the bats in New England will have on our ecosystem,” Robbins said. “Bats certainly eat lots and lots of insects, they eat about twice their body weight every night.”
The geomyces destructans fungus may have come to the United States from Europe, where local species have white fungus growing on their faces and wings.
Studying the syndrome is difficult. Breeding little brown bats in captivity, where researchers and veterinarians could monitor for the fungus, is often futile.
“As far as I know, there are no captive colonies of little brown bats that breed in captivity,” Robbins said. “We just don’t know enough about their nutritional needs, and their diets in captivity are very limited.”
But researchers are working on other ways to help the bats.
At Tufts, researchers are considering treating bats with antifungal medication before they go into hibernation for the winter, Robbins said.
Other wildlife veterinarians and biologists build artificial caves near bat colonies, hoping the animals will move to a home that is not infected, or study whether the caves where bats hibernate can be kept clear of the fungus.
In New England, “we have been living with 90 percent fewer bats in the last three or four years, since 2009,” she said. “It’s a real tragedy.”
At the Kunz Bat Lab, Miri and John danced in front of thermal cameras that bat ecologist Nathan Fuller set up for a demonstration. They rubbed their feet on the floor to create hot spots and stuck their tongues out to see how warm they are.
Fuller uses thermal cameras, which sense heat rather than light, to study bats’ collective movements in large groups and the impact the syndrome has on little brown bats’ wings.
“There’s no way you can see bats at night without help,” he said, removing a camera from its plastic case. “It’s really hard work . . . but it’s fun, because you get to see bats in their natural environment with their natural behaviors, not manipulated at all.”
Fuller played a thermal imaging video of bats circling Frio Cave outside Uvalde, Texas, and explained how he attaches radio transmitters to bats so he can track them with a small battery-operated airplane.
Fuller and Froschauer then took the Parruccis to a teaching lab in the Metcalf Center for Science and Engineering and showed them bat specimens.
For the first time, Miri got to touch a bat.
She held a female cave myotis bat on her flat palm and patted its back with a finger, admiring the bat’s fur and feet.
“I think I’m gonna name her Zombie, because she’s dead,” she said.