U.S. Bat Population threatened by Killer Fungus

If you were told that bats are dying across the United States in record numbers due to a mysterious fungus dubbed "white-nose syndrome"- would you even care?

I mean most people find bats to be ugly, creepy or even down-right terrifying. Let's face it, Batman didn't choose a bat costume to make friends and spread happiness; he did it to scare the piss out of bad guys!

If their fearful appearance wasn't bad enough, bats also get a bad rep as being carriers of diseases like rabies, SARS and the Ebola virus. They also love to attack people by becoming entangled in their hair…at least that's what an old wife told me while I was researching this piece…

So having a few less bats around could only be a good thing right? (Stop me if you've heard this one: what do you call 10,000 bats at the bottom of the ocean? Answer: a good start.)

Who needs bats anyway?

Well, as it turns out – we do.

Sure bats carry diseases and freak people out, but they're also a vital part of the eco system. These flying mice can consume their weight in pesky insects every single night. With fewer bats around we can expect significant increases in pests that damage crops, trees and mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus.

Without these natural bug- destroying machines, increased pesticide usage is a foregone conclusion, and we all know how great they are for the environment right?

So what can we do to save these bats?

That's the question that experts like Marvin Moriarty, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife service are asking. It's estimated that anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million bats have bit the dust from the white fungus that has spread across nine U.S. states since being discovered in March of 2007.  Making matter worse, the fungus is expected to enter the Southeast and Midwest, areas that are home to some of the largest concentrations of endangered bats in the United States.

"If it goes farther, we are going to see some serious bat issues," said Moriarty.

The white fungus seems to attack the bats during their winter hibernation; their most vulnerable state. It agitates the bats, causing them to rouse from their slumber and exhaust their precious winter energy stores. As a result the bats are either dying of starvation or freezing to death by exiting the cave looking for food (insects) that don't exist in the winter months. Since the bats are huddled closely together to conserve heat, the fungus spreads easily and quickly across the entire cave population.

One instance of white-nose syndrome occurred in the Greeley mine in Vermont, a place where an estimated 3,000 bats called home. Moriarty and company could only find 33.

"I went into a cave last spring and most damn near cried," told Moriarty during a recent interview.

Now that's a guy who really likes bats, and he isn't alone in his concerns for the bat population.

According to Thomas Kunz, the director of The Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University regarding death toll on the bat populace, "We are witnessing one of the most precipitous declines of wildlife in North America."

The president of Bat Conservation International based in Austin, Texas also shares the same concerns about the future of bats in the United States. "This is the most alarming event in the lifetime of a person who has devoted his life to recovering these populations."

Research is underway to determine the best way to help the bats, raising endangered bats in captivity is one option. Mines and caves across the United States that are home to bats are also being closed off to the general public. In an odd turn of fate, this move isn't to protect us from the white fungus or the bats, but to protect the bats from us.

While there is no hard evidence yet, humans may be contributing to the spread of the fungus. That kind of puts the shoe on the other foot doesn't it?

2 comments
Posted by Kathleen on June 13,2009 at 7:48 PM

You've got to be kidding me, Catherine.  You actually respond to this alarming information with comments about writing style.  You are concerned with being captivated by authors who write well? How could you not be interested in this problem happening with the obvious near extinction of bats?  Captive by some odd oppression you are...that you are first to be entertained.  That you have no connection to the environment that sustains you - or not.

Good God help us...help us to have all the necessary intelligent prioritizing that will be needed for us to do whatever we must to allow our ecosystem the balance required for us to survive.  Help us move beyond bizzarre complacency to courageous involvement in our very lives.

Posted by Catherine on June 5,2009 at 6:40 PM

Well written. The author kept me captivated the whole time in a subject, I may not have necessarily been interested in.