“I’ve worked with bats over 45 years and never have I seen, or even known about, any kind of mortality rate comparable to what we’ve seen,” says Thomas Kuntz, a biology professor at Boston University. He is one of the few bat specialists in America.
The disease is called white-nose syndrome. It started, presumably, in a small cave in upstate NY called Howe Caverns; a popular tourist attraction outside of Albany. In 2006 a caver reported many bats displaying white growth on their nose and wings. These bats were noticeably weaker than the non-infected bats. They came out of hibernation earlier and died off more rapidly from starvation or over-exposure.
In the last 4 years this disease has spread through the Northeast killing more than a million bats. This last year new outbreaks have been reported as far as Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Already affected areas include upstate NY, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Canada was affected in 2009 in Quebec and Ontario The ecological impact this will create, or has created is not totally known.
When a cave is infected more than 75% will likely be wiped out during the first winter hibernation and after the next winter 90% of the original colony will have either died or contracted the disease.
One senior US wildlife official has gone so far as to describe the massacre as “the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife caused by infectious disease in recorded history”.
“One of the biggest problems we’re facing is that we don’t really know much about bats or this fungus,” says Hazel Barton, a British born professor of microbiology at the University of Kentucky whose team are concentrating on studying the fungus behind the deaths.
When I took a class at SUNY ESF called Mammal Diversity taught by Professor Mark V. Lomolino, I remember learning that bats huddle closely in hibernation to become like one large body. Professor Lomolino teaches a variety of classes at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY. He has a special place in his heart, however, for bats. I am currently waiting for his comment and this article will be updated as needed.
In most species of bat, individuals will frequently arise from torpor about once every 12-20 days. It has been observed that the infected bats will wake up 2-3 times as much.
“In heterothermic bats one or more Thermoregulation)” and the brain remain sensitive at low temperatures and initiate the necessary heat production for arousal. Heat is generated by the metabolism of fat and by shivering. (Encyclopedia Britannica,
“Every time they arouse it’s an enormous drain on their energy levels,” says Dr Kunz. They need to raise their body temperature every time they wake. The bats with white-nose syndrome wake severely undernourished. They head towards the mouth of the cave to find insects. Some don’t make it out and others die of exposure in a few hours.
If America’s bats die out there will be an huge issue in the farming industry related to insects. Bats eat more than half their weight of insects every night. The University of Boston, using a test study compiled over eight counties in Texas, believes the US farming industry will go from spending $1bn (£630m) a year on pesticides to $9bn.
The fight has partially moved to preventing the spread into the West Coast. The Great Plains and the Rockies act as sort of a natural barrier. Few species from places like Tennessee end up in California, Washington, or Oregon: boasting some of the largest bat populations in the country.
The biggest fear: HUMAN TRANSMISSION!!
This is what happened to Hellbender populations and other amphibians as humans aided the
spread of chytrid fungus, a skin-disease.
It is thought that the white-nose fungus may have breen brought by someone from Europe. It then either mutated into a pathogen or already was one for bats that did not have the required immunity.
“A number of bats in Germany, Hungary and Switzerland have recently been found to carry the white-nose fungus but are not affected by it suggesting that Europe’s bat population has already experienced a mass fatality and become resistant. (CommonDreams.org)”
All it would take is for a careless caver to carry this disease over to the West Coast!
- Bat disease threatens ecological catastrophe (independent.co.uk)
- Do we know what causes the white nose syndrome? (greenanswers.com)
- Bat Disease Threatens to Close America’s Caves (wired.com)
- Racing to Save Bats From Catastrophic Exctinction, Biologists Turn to New Tools (popsci.com)
- NJPP Monday Minute 10/25/10: This is the time to go a little “batty” (middletownmike.blogspot.com)
- Unprecedented Bat Die-Off Could Devastate U.S. Agriculture (dailyfinance.com)
- Mysterious Plague Killing Off Bats (abcnews.go.com)
- Mysterious Bat-Killing Disease Appears Harmless in Europe (livescience.com)
- Little Brown Bat Extinction Predicted (animals.change.org)
- White Nose Syndrome: Scientists Find Drugs That May Fight Fungal Bat Disease (huffingtonpost.com)