Monday, January 18, 2010

Why mass die-off of bats should be of grave concern

Bats get a bad rap. Considered by many to be nothing but rabies carriers, or scary creatures of the night that will tangle in your hair (pleeeease, that is a myth), the general public is not aware of just how beneficial these animals really are to our ecosystems. As the largest predators of night flying insects, bats are a vital component to the natural order of things. I happen to think they are cute too! But bats are in deep trouble. Dying at an alarming rate from an insidious disease called White Nosed Syndrome, they are facing one of the most accelerated and dire wildlife crises in the past 100 years. The following is a reprinted article from

(NECN: Anya Huneke, Dorset, VT) - When it comes to cute animals, bats are not generally on the top of the list. But they are a vital part of our eco-system- as a major predator of insects. And now they are being threatened with extinction-- a number of species have contracted a disease that is causing massive die-offs.
Getting to the top of mount Aeolus in East Dorset Vermont, is never an easy feat. Especially in the dead of winter, when snow shoes are a must on this two mile uphill climb. But it's a climb biologists are compelled to make - now, perhaps, more than ever before, as they search for answers to a mystery that has them profoundly baffled... And concerned.

The Aeolus cave is where bats from all over New England hibernate for the winter, historically, the largest site of its kind in the region. But in just two years' time, the population of bats here has plummeted- ever since a disease called 'white nose syndrome' was discovered in caves and mines across the state. The fungus - which appears on the muzzles and wings of bats - was first identified in New York during the winter of 2006 and 7... And quickly spread to neighboring states- including Vermont and Massachusetts. It has now moved as far south as Virginia.

Tuesday, a group of five wildlife experts ventured into Aeolus cave. Barely inside the entrance- they started to lose hope. A few bats - frozen to death - clung to the wall. And farther in, more disheartening signs. The main room of the cave is generally filled with hibernating bats. But this time in- scientists spotted just a few small clusters. Wildlife biologist Scott Darling had hoped for the best, but knew the numbers likely would be low. On a site visit last winter, he found tens of thousands of bat carcasses on the ground. The floor of Aeolus is now covered with bat bones-- left over from a major bat die-off last year. And the ceiling- where there are normally many thousands of bats- there are now very few.
The difference is stark-- here's a picture from last year, when infection was already rampant in this cave.

And here is one from this year. Yet little to date is known about the fungus-- its cause... or its cure. What scientists do know is that bats with white nose syndrome lose their winter fat reserves faster than normal... And emerge from hibernation early- and hungry. During warmer weather, most bats feed on insects-- acting as a natural pesticide by consuming large quantities each night.

That is one reason the impact of this mass mortality of bats, experts say, should be of grave concern. Darling says the timing of this crisis is unfortunate- with federal funding limited and many other national issues taking precedence. But *this* issue - these experts say - is unprecedented... Many infected caves and mines - including Aeolus - are seeing a 90-percent or greater mortality rate.
Experts say bats are slow to reproduce- about one offspring per year. So with the number of bat deaths across the region now moving into the millions, a fix, if one is found, will be years in the making.

Please check out this video:

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