B is for the Bats, Which are Dying by the Millions

I admit, before last summer I had never cared much about bats. I didn’t think they were cute or of much use or interest, but then I met Rob Mies director of the Organization for Bat Conservation and his rehabilitated bats during an event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

I learned that bats make up a large part of the world’s ecosystem, in fact, a quarter of all mammal species are a type of bat! I learned that they are intelligent and affectionate creatures and actually kind of cute when you get past all the misconceptions about rabies and blood drinking.

The truth is humans would have a really hard time of it if it weren’t for bats controlling the insect population, reseeding deforested land, and pollinating plants, many of which we eat.

I also learned that bats are in trouble and as usual, it’s pretty much our fault.

Like all animals in the world human encroachment, habitat destruction, pesticides, and climate change are affecting bats, but more than that scientist believe that we humans brought a plague down upon bats in the form of White-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destruction) native to Europe and Asia. Bats there are largely unaffected by it, but here in America, the fungus grows on a bat’s wings and noses causing them to wake up during winter hibernation and either starve or freeze to death. The fungus is decimating colonies and killing by the thousands with no cure and no signs of slowing.

Once White-nose syndrome hits a bat colony up to 70%-90% of the bats roosting there will die. In some cases, the kill rate has been 100%, and scientist now warns that entire species may go extinct as the fungus makes a slow march across the country from the east coast to the west.

wnsspreadmap_3_22_2017_002
https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/resources/map

We don’t know everything about bats, but we do know they do not cross oceans, but people do. It is believed that humans brought back this fungus from Europe and introduced it to colonies here through cave exploration.

Seven species are affected, three of which are now on the (including three on the federal endangered species list. Kill estimates are as high as Tens of millions of bats since 2006 when the fungus was first recognized here. The disease moves so fast and kills so efficiently that it’s considered the worst wildlife disease outbreak in North American history.

So, why should you care? Remember a few years ago when we were all in a panic of bee colony collapse syndrome, well it turns out the bees are bouncing back, but they aren’t the only one’s who save farmers, corporations, consumers, and the U.S. government billions of dollars a year.

Back in 2008, the Forest Service estimated that due to White-nose syndrome and the deaths of around a million bats, 2.4 million pounds of insects went uneaten and free to damage crops and spread disease. They also provide pollination and seed spreading service, for free. All we have to do is respect them and keep them safe. We had one job….

So, how can you help? First of all, stop going into caves. Just stop. Saving these creatures is more important than your need to explore. If you have to please do so with trained professionals and observe proper decontamination protocols when you leave. Respect caves and mines that are closed, they are for a reason.

Take some time to learn what you can about your own local bat species types and habits, then spread the word. Consider setting up your own bat house.

And finally, don’t let your government slash budgets for programs that study, protect, and benefit the environment. Bats, like most animals, need to be protected from us and it’s important that we allow the government to do what we can’t, keep us out of their habitats.

We need local parks and protected caves that we can’t go trampling in or building on whenever we want to. Call your local representative and you leaders in Congress, or send a fax by text, and let them know that humans are awful and out of control and for that reason, we need our parks and our scientists to keep the world safe before there is no other life to protect anymore.

***

If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or buy me a cup of coffee perhaps?

This post was written for the 2017 Blogging A to Z Challenge. My theme isThe World is Really an Awful Place. You can read the rest of the posts under the AtoZ2017 tag.

Featured image: A northern long-eared bat with visible symptoms of white-nose syndrome via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters [CC BY 2.0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

Published by

Lisa

Hello! My name is Lisa. I find the human condition fascinating and I often write stuff about that. I blog at zenandpi.com but you can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and if you like what I do, consider signing up for my newsletter. Thanks :)

9 thoughts on “B is for the Bats, Which are Dying by the Millions”

    1. Hi, Lisa; you are right that WNS is a major problem, and I appreciate you taking the time to write about it. However, as someone who spends a lot of time in caves, helps with bat research, and assists local fish and wildlife agencies in monitoring the bat populations, I feel like I need to comment and add some nuance, and correct a few pieces of misinformation.

      First, there is no evidence that humans exploring caves are a cause of the white-nose spread. The best research we have shows the fungus spreading bat-to-bat along migration routes, and not spreading outside of those routes the way we would expect if humans were transmitting it. Caves that have been closed for years, for example, still become infected, while well-visited caves with few bats may show no signs of the fungus.

      We have, in fact, no evidence that human transmission of the fungus has ever occurred. There was initial speculation that humans brought the fungus from Europe, but that was and remains speculation without any evidence. The picture is a little more complicated, too, since we’ve learned the fungus is endemic in Europe, but there is also an Asian strain. We probably will never know how it arrived, and the makes people want to fill in the answer by jumping to conclusions one way or another. Doing so is bad science, however human it may be.

      Even without the evidence for human transmission, though, those of us who work with bats and study caves use effective decontamination procedures for preventing any potential human spread, no matter how unlikely. These include removing all mud from gear after visiting a bat cave; cleaning hard gear with bleach, lysol, or 409 (which kill the fungal spores); and using hot-water soaks for soft gear (which also kills the fungus at the appropriate temperature). You are welcome to read more detailed protocols here: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/sites/default/files/resource/national_wns_decon_protocol_04.12.2016.pdf

      The trouble is that bats transmit the fungus effectively to one another, and so although we can eliminate any chance of transmitting the fungus ourselves, we can’t stop the spread by doing that, or even really affect it (since human transmission was never a major vector, if it was any vector at all). Bats can and do travel hundreds of miles between their hibernacula and their summer roosts, and so over the past decade we have seen the edge of infection move down the Eastern seaboard by about 100-150 miles every year as infected bats mix with uninfected populations.

      A second problem is that infected bats can be moved much farther by human systems; live bats have been found in containers on ships and trucks, and in cargo areas on airplanes. So the possibility exists that we, humans, will spread the disease–but likely not in a way that we can prevent by decontaminating or avoiding caves.

      There are a few things people can do, and your suggestion to put up bat houses is a good one. Especially in areas where there are few tree or rock roosts for bats during the summer, a bat house can give bats a safe place to stay.

      Another very good thing to know is what to do if you find bats in your house–do not attack them, grab them, or panic. Instead, simply open a window and close the doors to the room with the bat, and it will find its own way out.

      Finally, let me say that the absolute most important thing for people who are exploring caves as part of recreation or science is to stay out of caves with bats during the hibernation season for your area. In the northeast, that is typically Oct1-Apr30. Visiting bat caves in the summer does no harm, since the bats are not there–however, disturbing hibernating bats, especially those stressed by the fungus, can cause them to wake early from hibernation, burn up fat reserves, and die before making it through the winter. We’ve seen a bit of rebound in some bat populations our area lately, but we really need to take care of our bat caves to protect the individuals that remain.

      If you go in caves outside of the hibernation season, follow the decontamination protocols. The risk of human transmission is very small, but this is definitely a better safe than sorry case. Certainly do not take gear used in heavily infected areas to uninfected states or areas; use a separate set of gear for those.

      And remember, there are many, many caves that do not harbor bats. If you enter a cave during hibernation season for any reason and see bats, turn around and go somewhere else. Caves that get very cold (significantly below freezing), caves that flood several times a year, and caves that are very wet are generally not used by hibernating bats and are safe to visit year-round (provided you take steps to do so responsibly and safely for yourself). For guidance on safe and responsible caving practices, visit the National Speleological Society at caves.org.

      Best,
      John

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh my gosh, thank you so much for all of this. I did my best to research but many of the sources had not been updated in a while. More than one stated that humans were probably to blame for the invasion of the fungus from Asia or Europe to North America. So, thought it safe to include that information.

        Of course, I never meant that scientist or professionals should stay out of caves. If proper procedures are followed there is little to nothing to worry about but there are people who do not respect cave/mine closures or who do not follow proper decontamination procedures. They are who I am talking to here.

        Whether or not we are ultimately to blame the fact is we are not as careful or caring of our environment and the animals that share this planet with us as we should be. Bats have long been seen by the general public and ugly, disgusting, dangerous, and unworthy of our help. My goal was to change that with this post.

        Thank you for all the additional information you provided. When I get a free moment I will go back through and update any misinformation and link directly to your comment for further reading :)

        Like

        1. No problem, I’m always happy to see people I follow writing about WNS because we absolutely need to be more aware of it and understand it better. Respecting closed caves and mines, especially during hibernation, is a huge part of that. I just also want people to know they can explore safely with endangering bats as well. I always prefer to say “here’s how to do it well, and safely” and bring those people into the community who might otherwise go into a mine full of hibernating bats and not know better.

          Like

  1. Interesting points made here. I’ve heard some of this from other sources such as the presentation give before the bat flight from Carlsbad Caverns–an impressive sight if one is ever near that attraction.

    The dwindling bee population is another situation that could have very bad implications for all of us.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s