The Battle of all Battles

batsRecently, we covered the rapid decline of bee populations in North America. Now, another creature is facing massive losses: bats.

Experts have identified several potential causes, from pesticides and pollution to wind turbines and habitat loss. The leading cause, however, is believed to be the spread of “white-nose syndrome”. Fittingly, the syndrome is marked by the growth of white fungus on the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bats. The fungus irritates the bats, rousing them from their winter slumber. Once awake, the bats fly around—even in daytime—quickly consuming their stored fat reserve.The result is emaciation and starvation.

Thus far, the syndrome has afflicted bats across 22 US states, mostly in the northeast. An estimated 7 million bats have succumbed to the disease. This includes 100% of bats in some caves, 80% of bats in the northeast, and 90% of all little brown bats, once America’s most common bat species.

To compound the problem, the syndrome is spreading in the United States. Once confined to the northeast, it is now present in such states as Indiana, Tennessee, Missouri, and Alabama. Furthermore, the syndrome threatens numerous bat species. Of the 46 bat species in the US, 26 (over half) hibernate. Finally, bat species generally produce only one pup per year and, at most, five pups in a lifetime. Thus, any recovery of the bat population would take decades.

bat world

Regrettably, the environmental—and economic—consequences could be massive. After all, bats are a natural form of pest control, each consuming thousands of insects per night. These include disease carrying insects (e.g. mosquitoes) and “crop-damaging caterpillars and worms”. Like bees, bats also pollinate certain plants. For these reasons, it has been estimated that bats contribute approximately $23 billion in environmental services annually to the agricultural industry.

But humans may be able to stem bats’ decline.  To begin, experts are encouraging people to refrain from entering non-commercial caves and abandoned mines, and to disinfect all clothes and equipment before entering new caves. Congress has also transferred $1.9 million to the Fish and Wildlife Service for research, surveillance, and an annual symposium. However, bat advocates claim that further funding is needed.

To learn more, please visit: www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/white-nose_syndrome/

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