Blood-sucking devil birds!
Winged spawn of Satan!
These are just a few words some of us might mistakenly use to describe the bat; but despite this fictitious reputation, bats are vital to the ecosystem. They are pest control agents; eating disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes, and feeding on crop-damaging caterpillars and worms. They also aid in the pollinating of certain plants.
It’s because of their vital ecological importance, bat-lovers and scientists alike are in panic mode over massive loss of these flying mammals. Bats are dying off at an alarming rate.
Just how big of a bat loss are we talking?
Last year, NASA reported the North American bat’s death toll surpassed the 7 Million mark. A year later, it is feared that the death toll may be reaching 10 Million. United States Fish & Wildlife Services fear that “half the bat species in the United States could be wiped out if something is not done.”
What exactly is killing off all of these bats?
White-Nose Syndrome Killing Off Bats
Despite some bat’s white-nosed appearance, they have not been out partying with Lindsay Lohan. The white substance appearing on affected bats is a white fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans). This symptom is called White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). A deadly white fungus will grow on bat’s noses, bodies, and wings as they hibernate in caves for the winter. The fungus causes the hibernating bats to wake during the winter months. When awake, the bats will burn up all of their energy reserves that are usually saved when they hibernate. Due to lack of energy and nutrition, the affected bats ultimately die of starvation. The fungus is also deadly when it spreads to a bat’s wings. Healthy wing membranes are vital to bats, as they help regulate body temperature, blood pressure, water balance and gas exchange—not to mention the ability to fly and to feed.
The White-Nose Syndrome fungus was first discovered back in 2006, in the caves of New York. It has since spread to some 28 U.S. States. It’s believed that the fungus was brought over from Europe, where WNS didn’t seem to have the same affect as it has on the 26 different species of hibernating North American bats.
America’s most common species of bat, the little brown bat, has been hit the hardest with some states reporting population losses as high as 90 percent. In certain specific caves in the U.S., the entire population has been wiped out.
According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, this is “one of the fastest declines of wildlife they have ever seen.”
Current States Reporting White-Nose Syndrome
As of June 2013, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services report that 28 states have confirmed the deadly bat disease, White-Nose Syndrome. This is a drastic increase from 2007 when New York was the only state to report WNS. Current states affected include:
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
To help out our bat friends, and combat WNS, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services has awarded grants totaling almost $1 Million to the 28 affected states.
Can Humans Catch White-Nose Syndrome?
It is common believe among scientists and researchers that bat-to-bat transmission is the principal aspect in the spread of White Nose Syndrome. Furthermore, research also suggests that the disease can ONLY be spread bat-to-bat. It is, however, believed that WNS fungus can be spread by humans from infected sites to clean sites through contaminated shoes, clothing, and equipment.
As for humans catching White-Nose Syndrome, it is highly unlikely. According to whitenosesyndrome.org, thousands of people have visited affected caves and mines since the disease was first observed. There have been no reported human illnesses attributable to WNS.
We are still learning about WNS, but we know of no risk to humans from contact with WNS-affected bats. However, we urge taking precautions and not exposing yourself to WNS. Biologists and researchers use protective clothing when entering caves or handling bats.
Currently, there is no known cure for White-Nose Syndrome.
How Loss Of Bats Hurts Agriculture
The economic consequences of losing up to 10 Million could be substantial. A single colony of 150 big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) has been estimated to eat nearly 1.3 million pest insects each year, possibly contributing to the disruption of population cycles of agricultural pests. That means that over 1500 metric tons of insect pests are no longer being consumed by bats in the affected areas.
It’s suggested that loss of bats in North America could lead to agricultural losses estimated at more than $3.7 Billion a year.
What Can Be Done To Save Bats From White-Nose Syndrome
In general, fungus is spread through direct contact with fungal spores. Humans are urged to not share clothing, shoes, pillowcases, etc., stay away from stray animals, take care of personal equipment, and wear flip flops in public showers to avoid contact with fungal spores of any kind. In general, its in good taste to not touch bats while spelunking for both the bat’s health, and your own.
Unfortunately, bats cannot put on little rubber gloves and other protective clothing to avoid contact with fungal spores. On the plus side, recent research has found that the fungus may respond to typical human anti-fungal treatments. More studies are being undertaken to determine how best to use this knowledge.