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Batty about Bats – but even Batman can’t save them from White Nose

04 May

By Kristy

A white fungus is currently killing most of the bat population across the Eastern US.  Nobody understands why, or how, and there is uncertainty as to how this will affect our ecosystem.

For five years of my Ph.D., during 7 months out of the year, I would occasionally drive an hour from Boston to capture wild-caught bats at a barn on a rural farm.  A harp trap was set-up at the mouth of the barn, to catch the bats at ‘emergence’, or the time at dawn or dusk when these insectivorous bats arouse in order to feed on bugs.

When autumn approached and the bats were preparing for hibernation, they would migrate to caves in Vermont, and I would also drive there for 2 nights of bat-catching at dark, cold, mountain caves.  This meant carrying the trap up the mountain, along with our supplies and the bat hotel (the small wooden cubbies that house the bats in the close-quarters they prefer).

The flying devil, Myotis lucifugus

These bats are Myotis lucifugus, or little brown bats, named for their Lucifer-style devil ears.  Actually, the bats are quite adorable, quite smart, and are more closely related to humans than most other model research species.  They roost in these barns in maternal colonies, with only very few young males.  In the fall, the bats mate and then store sperm all through the winter, only fertilizing a single egg when spring comes.  This period of hibernation during the winter is extremely energy-intensive, requiring deposition of new fat stores, and making the seasonal hibernating bat a fascinating example of beneficial obesity in the animal kingdom.

Needless to say, I am fascinated by and adore all bats.

Not all people share this feeling.  Sure, Batman is a hero, but usually bats are the scary winged creatures of nightmares and horror movies.  My own husband ran to the car, rolled up the windows, and locked the doors, when I tried to get him to touch one of the bats I was holding at the barn one summer.

More recently, permits allowing capture of bats for research purposes are granted in much smaller numbers.  Because despite the beneficial knowledge (including benefits for health and preservation of bat colonies) gleaned form these research studies, the bat populations across the East are being decimated by a fungus called White Nose Syndrome.

White Nose Syndrome affected areas as of Apr 2011

From New Hampshire to Tennessee, cavers, Fish & Wildlife workers, and researchers are discovering up to 90% of hibernating colonies not surviving the winter due to this inexplicable disease.  Some evidence is emerging from research studies on deceased and surviving bats to implicate effects on metabolism and immune function as potential reasons for the deaths.  But until a cure is found, either naturally or via human intervention, the important bat populations are in dire straits.  This is as devastating as the loss of the bee populations, but is receiving far less popular press coverage.

So, here are my top 5 reasons we should care about the loss of bat species in the East:

  1. Bats are important pollinators, and even pollinate the important tequila-source: the agave plant.  And fruit-eating bats disperse seeds. Ergo, bats are important for the environment.
  2. Bats are one of just a few species with sonar and echolocation abilities. This means, when you see them flying outside, they’ll never actually swoop close enough to touch you. And if a bat is stuck in your attic, just open a window – they’ll find their way out on their own.
  3. Bats eat insects, and help keep their numbers in check
  4. Bat guano (feces) is a great fertilizer
  5. Bats are amazing creatures: they sleep upside down, the bones of their wing match the bones of a human hand, and they can store sperm over the winter.  Plus, check out the amazing mechanics of their flight, watch a vampire bat run on a treadmill, and see the long tongue of a nectar-eating bat.

So what can be done?

  1. Spread the word!  Encourage your local press to cover the story, find stories online and share them with friends, write to your government representatives and encourage more funding for F&W and researchers who study White Nose Syndrome.
  2. Set up a bat house
  3. Support Bat Conservation International
  4. Enjoy the show at dusk, when bats around your home may emerge to feed.
  5. Engage in Bat eco-tourism.  Visit the famous bridge in Austin, TX where thousands of bats emerge to feed each night.

Bat photo from : http://www.itsnature.org/news/bat-diet-forensics-aid-conservation/

WNS map from: http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/

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