By Becca Nelson '20
When I was a kid, my parents would take me on night walks. We would walk through the quiet, suburban darkness to a local park, which had a trail around a small lake. Our flashlights would bob along the edge of the water, looking for bullfrogs. We’d listen to the thrum of cicadas in the birches overhead. But one of my favorite animals to search for was up above. I would stare up at the night sky, a dark indigo ocean swept with wakes of stars. If I was patient, I would find a couple of flapping, dark-winged forms bobbing through the sky—bats. They would flitter in graceful arcs above the treetops as sleek blurs of motion. To me, they epitomized all the hidden mystery of summer nights. Nights when the park was free of barking dogs and shouting swimmers and screeching tires. Nights when the manicured park blossomed into a vast, unknown wilderness.
Tracing the trajectories of swooping bats in the park became a tradition. I took the bats for granted. I assumed every summer the shadows of bats would pass over the park, just as every summer my mother’s tiger lilies bloomed and the mornings filled with birdsong. But in future summers, the sky may rest empty because of a widespread disease: white-nose syndrome. Discovered in New York around 2006, this disease is killing unprecedented amounts of bats across the eastern and mid-western states and it continues to spread westward. This past year, a case was reported as far west as Washington State.
White-nose syndrome is caused by an invasive fungus that’s scientifically known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans. This fungus is psychrophillic, which is a fancy way of saying that it loves cold temperatures. This allows it to thrive in the cold caves where large groups of bats hibernate in the winter. The fungus commonly appears as a white fuzz on the noses of the bats, hence the name white-nose syndrome, as well on other parts of the body. The fungus disrupts the bat’s ability to stay hydrated and store fat for energy, causing the bat to wake from hibernation in midwinter and starve.
In her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert describes her experience visiting caves of hibernating bats. In one Vermont cave, she was horrified by what she found: “The ground was covered with dead bats; some of the ice knobs I noticed, had bats frozen into them.” Researchers estimate that white-nose syndrome has killed over 5.7 million bats in North America. The disease can wipe out entire roosts of bats and has already infected 11 of the 47 bat species found in the United States. Among those impacted, include two endangered species: the gray bat and the Indiana bat. Besides these 11 species, the pathogen has been detected on several more species, though its impact is unknown.
Bats are more than just fascinating silhouettes that add drama to a summer sky. They play an important ecological role through eating insects. They save American farmers over $3 billion dollars every year by eating large quantities of crop pests. They also eat insects that would otherwise harm human health, pollinate both native plants and crops, and help disperse the seeds of native plants. Protecting bats from white-nose syndrome is important both ecologically and economically.
So far, there has been no established cure for the disease, but ongoing research looks promising. In 2015, 75 bats were successfully treated for white-nose syndrome using a bacterium with antifungal properties. The bacterium was being studied for its ability to prevent mold from forming on supermarket bananas. The researchers then used it to inhibit the growth of the white-nose syndrome fungus.
You can help the bats by not disturbing local roosts, monitoring bat species in your area, decontaminating any gear you use around caves and mines, or creating bat-friendly habitat. Many species of bats prefer wetlands and forested areas near streams. Keeping some dead trees in place, minimizing light pollution, and building a bat house for roosting bats can transform your backyard into a bat oasis.
The role of bats in insect suppression suggests that a diverse range of groups from conservation biologists to farmers would benefit from curing the disease. This issue is nonpartisan but overlooked. Its most haunting signs are hidden in the deep, dark recesses of caves, obscuring it from public knowledge. Working together to tackle the white-nose syndrome may help stakeholders find common ground on other more polarized environmental issues. Hopefully, such efforts will fill the night skies of future summers with beauty and mystery.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The sixth extinction: An unnatural history. A&C Black, 2014.
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