A scientific study released last week found that the brown bat could be completely extinct within 16 years if no solution is found for the deadly disease now attacking Northeastern populations.
One of New England’s most plentiful species, scientists discovered that the brown bat is falling victim to a condition known as ‘white-nose syndrome’. The named is used to refer to a white fungus that appears on the nose, wings, and other body parts of hibernating bats.
This fungal growth causes the bats to wake up from their winter hibernation, wasting precious fat stores in the process. Many end up leaving their warm caves and mines in search for food, only to find barren, snow-covered landscapes where they eventually die.
Scientists first discovered the disease in a cave outside Albany, N.Y. around four years ago. During that outbreak, it killed more than 90 percent of bats in some caves in just a few years (Boston Globe).
Aside from being a staple in creepy Halloween decorations, the bats amazing natural talents are often overlooked. The brown bat alone has ability to eat its body weight in insects every night, and is a natural predator of many garden and agricultural pests, and mosquitoes.
“We don’t pretend to be fortune tellers…but we’re very worried,” Winifred F. Frick, lead author of the paper, told the Boston Globe. “The loss of so many bats is basically a terrible experiment in how much these animals matter for insect control.”
Currently, the fungus has been found in seven hibernating bat species as far north as Ontario, as far south as Tennessee, and as far west as Oklahoma, and is still rapidly spreading (Boston Globe).
No one is really sure how the bats were first exposed to the fungus, but some scientists believe it may have been accidentally introduced into the New York cave by humans, who are not harmed by it. As a result, many of the nations caves and mines have been temporarily closed to human exploration.
Unless experts can find a way to slow the death rate, computer simulations indicate that the brown bat will not be able to sustain a regional population for longer than 16 years.
Image: Little brown bat; close-up of nose with fungus, New York, Oct. 2008. Credit: Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service