In 2006, scientists began to notice that a mysterious disease was decimating bat populations in upstate New York with unexpected speed and thoroughness. Now identified as ‘white-nose syndrome,’ bat biologists estimate that this fast-moving disease has now killed as many as 6.7 million bats in North America over the past six years.
White-nose syndrome refers to a white fungus that appears on the nose, wings, and other body parts of infected, hibernating bats.
The new estimate is dramatically higher than the previous one, dating from 2009, that white-nose syndrome had killed 1 million bats on the continent. The disease has spread from Nova Scotia to Tennessee, infecting bat colonies in 16 states and four provinces. In 2010, scientists predicted that unless a cure could be found, white-nose syndrome could completely wipe out brown bat populations within the next 16 years.
“This number confirms what people working on white-nose syndrome have known for a long time — that bats are dying in frighteningly huge numbers and several species are hurtling toward the black hole of extinction,” said Mollie Matteson with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed several petitions to save bats and stem the spread of the disease. “We have to move fast if we’re going to avoid a complete catastrophe for America’s bats.”
Bats are nocturnal creatures, emerging from caves and other dark recesses to hunt for insects only at night. Even though they may seem frightening to humans, extinction of the species is an even scarier prospect. The loss of so many bug-eating bats will undoubtedly have an impact on insect populations, including those that feed on human food crops.
Scientists have estimated that bats save farmers between $3.7 billion and $53 billion per year on pesticides by eating the insects that feed on crops like corn, cotton, vegetables and fruit. Since the bat disease has only shown up in the Midwest and South in the last couple of years, the full effects of declining bat numbers on regions more strongly dominated by agriculture than the Northeast may take some time to show up.
The outbreak is the worst wildlife disease epidemic in North America’s history. Congress recently directed the Department of the Interior to allot $4 million for research and management of the disease.
“America’s bats are in the throes of an unprecedented crisis and some species face the very real prospect of extinction,” Matteson said. “While it’s heartening to see some money allocated for white-nose syndrome, today’s new mortality estimates are a wake-up call that we need to do more, and fast.”
For more information on what you can do to help, please visit SaveOurBats.org.
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.