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
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