Hundreds of dead bats have been found atop the snow outside two abandoned Lackawanna County mines, among Pennsylvania's largest and most important bat sites.

At one mine near Carbondale, state Game Commission officials described bats flying from the mine and dropping from the sky, their tiny carcasses piled at the bases of nearby trees.

"Hundreds were visible on top of the most recent snow, so I suspect there are thousands," biologist Kevin Wenner of the agency's Northeast Region office in Dallas said in a statement.

Officials were hardly surprised, but nonetheless troubled.

Game Commission executive director Carl G. Roe said in a statement that the findings signal an uncertain future for cave bats, which play an important role in the ecosystem and benefit humans because they eat huge quantities of insects, including mosquitoes and crop pests.

Over the last two years, a disorder that has come to be known as white-nose syndrome - because of a fungus around the bats' muzzles - has killed thousands of bats in New England. In some cases, 90 percent of whole colonies were wiped out.

Biologists feared it would spread south and began monitoring bat colonies more closely. Sure enough, earlier this year New Jersey officials discovered dead bats and signs of the fungus in North Jersey.

Pennsylvania researchers discovered the fungus among bats in Mifflin County the week before Christmas, but none seemed to be dying.

They know only that the fungus and the deaths are related, but they don't know if the fungus causes the deaths or is a symptom of the disorder.

The bats wake up from hibernation early. With scant fat reserves, they fly from the caves in search of insects, which aren't around this time of year. So they die.

Biologists also attempted to get to the Lackawanna mines in December because they are closer to New York, where the virus has spread. At one, there were no dead bats outside, and the mine was too dangerous to enter. At the other, the researchers couldn't get through the snow pack.

They asked citizens to be on the alert.

Last week, a Carbondale resident called in.

Wenner and agency biologist Greg Turner visited and confirmed the suspicion.

Bucknell University bat expert DeeAnn Reeder said yesterday that the findings suggest many other caves in the state could be experiencing bat deaths.

"One of the things this new finding highlights is the role of the citizen scientist," she said. "There are so many sites that we don't even know about."

Roe said the state's bat biologists "have been actively involved in field monitoring and research and are working closely with some of this country's best and brightest minds in biology and epidemiology in their pursuit of clues."

But, he said, "a year later, there are just as many questions about white-nose syndrome, and more dead bats."

The game commission is asking the public to report bats that appear sick or are dead. The regional office number is 610-926-3136.

Also, a "Report Sick Bats" form can be accessed in the left-hand column of the commission's homepage (

» READ MORE: www.pgc.state.pa.us

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She cautioned that people should not handle bats - dead or alive - and should keep children and pets away from grounded bats.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.