Bat Fungus Wiping Out Our Flying Friends
I once shared my office with a bat. The little creature would fly in toward first light, circle around me as I typed away in the silence of morning, then hang in my storage closet until day’s end. When my husband discovered my friend, he conjured fears of rabies, fleas and feces. I gave in, reluctantly, and the bat had to find new sleeping quarters.
In the time the bat hung in my office, I read a lot about the flying mammals and realized what a blessing they are. We were on a farm. We needed bats to reduce the population of pests that feasted on our market gardens and livestock. They worked hard for us every night and asked nothing more than to be left alone.
Despite the myths about bats (blind, bloodsucking, hair tangling, rabid rodents), they are unbeatable eaters of pesky critters. Best of all, they work for free and do not harm the environment. No pesticide can make claims on either of those counts.
Scientists who study bats are making heartbreaking discoveries. This March, Canadian researchers waded through snow to check on 6,000 hibernating bats in New Brunswick. Last fall this was a healthy population. In March they found 1,200 corpses. A month later, 5,000 more were dead.
The deadly white-nose syndrome already swept through the eastern United States. Now bats in four Canadian provinces have added to a death toll that surpasses a million. Science News quotes Boston University biologist Thomas Kunz, who calls it “the most devastating wildlife disease in recorded history.”
The fungus strikes when the bats are clustered in caves, hibernating through the cold winter. The tell-tale white patches have led to its being called “white-nose disease,” but the cold-loving fungus is pervasive. As it eats away the bats’ fat stores, they awaken too frequently, sometimes fly in search of food and water when it is not available, and ultimately die of starvation.
The environmental benefit of bats is enormous. Brown bats, who are heavily affected by white-nose syndrome, “can eat more than 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in just one hour.” Bat Conservation International credits bats not only with pest control but also with their critical role as pollinators and seed dispersers. A US Geological Survey report places their value to U.S. agriculture at a low of $3.7 billion to a high of $53 billion every year, solely from pest control.
Researchers are working against the clock to develop treatments. They worry their efforts may not be in time to ensure survival of the five species most affected. Science News reports, “Any recovery of American populations from white-nose syndrome, scientists now suspect, will take many decades if not a century or longer.”
In the meantime, the costs to agriculture and health (due to an increase in disease-bearing insects) will continue to mount.
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region via Flickr Creative Commons