Over the years, bats have gained a fearsome reputation due to their nocturnal behaviors and Dracula’s fame. But if you actually take a closer look, you’ll find that instead of looking scary, bats are actually quite cute! More important, they are vital members of the natural world because they pollinate plants and eat pest insects that damage crops.
What’s really scary is that many of those insect-eating bats in the Northeast are dying in large numbers from a mysterious disease called white nose syndrome (WNS), which is a fungal infection that affects hibernating bats in cave ecosystems. The fungus responsible for WNS is new to science and is named Geomyces destructens. A fuzzy white growth on the bats’ muzzles gives the disease its name, but the fungal growth has also been found on their ears, tails and the tender tissue of their wings. Scientists believe that bats are waking up more often during winter, perhaps as a result of the disease, and are dying because they use up all their already depleted fat reserves.
Now what are the economic impacts of these bat die-offs? An average of one million bats, the number of estimated WNS fatalities to date, consume around 700 tons of insects, most of which are crop pests. So in the absence of these natural pest controllers, farmers will have to spend a lot more to manage the pest insects that affect their crops.
Six species of bats have been affected by the disease, and little brown bats have taken the brunt of it. If the disease rages on at current levels, they will soon lose their status as the most abundant bat species in the U.S.
WNS first drew public attention in 2006 when wildlife officials and cavers began to see hundreds of dead bats littering the floors of caves. Since then, it has spread so rapidly that it is now present in states all the way from Vermont to Missouri and Oklahoma – as of now, it has been documented in 13 states. Six species of bats have been affected by the disease, and little brown bats have taken the brunt of it. If the disease rages on at current levels, they will soon lose their status as the most abundant bat species in the U.S. Endangered species like Indiana and gray bats are also highly vulnerable to this disease, and since they hibernate in a few select colonies, it wouldn’t take much at all to drive these two species to extinction.
While scientists continue to discover new information about the disease every day, there are still many unknowns. Extensive research is needed to answer these questions, and in turn, funding is necessary to carry out this research. You can help by writing to your Congress members and asking them to increase federal funding for WNS research. Find out more about this deadly disease in the latest issue of Defenders magazine.