Trouble in the Bat Cave

First the bees, then the bats in Australia and now the bats in the Northeast United States are dropping dead for reasons that scientists do not yet understand.

The New York Times reports some pretty bizarre behavior from these natural pest controllers and pollinators; bats flying out of caves during daylight hours in the middle of winter, bats falling to the ground in the snow, bats having difficulty coming out of hibernation, bats appearing to have white fungus-like rings around their noses and bats dying in droves. This scenario is being repeated in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in alarming numbers.

According to the report “on average 90 percent of the hibernating bats in four caves and mines in New York have died since last winter.” They are referring to this phenomena as “White Nose Syndrome”, although nobody knows if the white ring is a cause or a symptom of what is killing the bats. Nonetheless, the disease is fatal in 50 – 90% of the bats affected.

Al Hicks, a mammal specialist with New York state’s Environmental Conservation Department, was the first to beginning studying the mysterious bat deaths after reports in January 2007 of a large number of bats leaving a cave in Albany. Between 2005 and 2007, some caves saw bat populations decrease by more than 50% -- and by 90% between 2005 and 2008. And as people have spread from the original four caves that were affected, so has the disease, leading researchers to suspect that people may be part of the transmission problem, with a known fifteen affected sites in New York, four in Vermont and two in Massachusetts. Canadian scientists are searching for signs of the disease in abandoned mines in Quebec, for fear that their bat population will start to suffer, as well.

Some are pointing to new pesticides, including those used to control West Nile Virus as a possible factor, others point to disrupted food supplies and reduced body fat during hibernation season as possible factors. Susi von Oettingen, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, believes that whatever the cause, this disease may lead to extinctions of species, both those that are currently listed as endangered and those that are not. With female bats only giving birth to one pup a year, declining population numbers are not easily boosted in a healthy population, let alone one that is already suffering.

The economic repercussions for farmers may be severe. Bats are a large factor in pest control and studies have already shown that in southwestern Texas, for example, bats save cotton farmers up to a sixth of the value of their crops through natural insect control. That’s $1.7 million saved in an 8 county agricultural area in South Texas. So we have more insects and crop losses to look forward to, along with less natural pollination. And more insects may also mean more pesticides which may very well put bats, bees and other species already in peril at greater risk. It’s a cycle that we need to break. If not for our own economic interests than for the many species that we have such great interdependency with and that are so adversely affected by our behavior.

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  • Posted on March 29, 2008. Listed in:

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