A week before Christmas, DeeAnn Reeder and her colleague Greg Turner made a discovery in a cave in Mifflin County. A handful of bats hibernating for winter had the tell-tale sign of white-nose syndrome, a mysterious condition killing off colonies in the northeast.

The discovery of the white fungus confirmed what state, federal and academic researchers have suspected would happen: White-nose syndrome has arrived in Pennsylvania after being detected in New York and Vermont.

"It is pretty clear that we now have classic early stage white-nose syndrome in Pennsylvania," said Reeder, an ecophysiologist and assistant professor of biology at Bucknell University. She is working with state and federal officials and other academic researchers to find out more about the syndrome, first discovered in 2006 among a dying population of bats in New York. There, large number of bats were found dead or starving, flying erratically during the day and in cold temperatures, weeks before they normally emerge from hibernation.

A multi-state research effort was launched in Albany during a June conference on white-nose syndrome. Scientists don't know what is causing bats to die or even if a disease agent is involved. They surmise the syndrome may have something to do with hibernation patterns or changes in energy balance, making it more difficult for bats to survive.

Bats are integral to the ecosystem, because they eat insects, sometimes in quantities equaling their own body weight in one day. One of the concerns is that a diminishing population of bats will cause insect populations to proliferate, putting crops at risk.

Reeder and a team of researchers have received a $50,000 grant from the Wildlife Management Institute to study whether alternations in bat hibernation patterns are contributing to white-nose syndrome.

About 600 bats in Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Vermont, Kentucky and possibly New Hampshire and West Virginia were tagged with transmitters that collect body temperature readings during hibernation. Data collection is ongoing, with results due in several months.

Preliminary results show the bats are warming up, or temporarily coming out of hibernation, more frequently than normal. "It looks like before they die, they are warming up even more frequently, and some are dying as they warm up," she said.

Jerry Feaser of the Pennsylvania Game Commission said researchers hope to learn more about white-nose syndrome before it fully takes hold in the state.

"We have the bats with the white stuff on them," he said. "What we don't have is the bat die-off. We don't have the exodus of bats leaving in mass numbers from hibernation."

Some bats are moving closer to the entrance of caves, where it is colder, Reeder said, but researchers do not yet know why.