Going to Bat   Leave a comment

Across much of North America, bats are suffering from a strange illness called white nose syndrome. While the name sounds like it’s not something that shouldn’t be too bad – bats with white noses, maybe they just need to get some more sun time – it’s actually deadly. The white-ness is caused by a fungus – Geomyces destructans – that enters and lives on the bats nose and respiratory system. The ‘white nose’ is a portion of the fungus itself, living on the bat. Fungus living on an animal is seldom good (think athlete’s feet), but this particular fungus is somehow affecting the bats’ nervous system, causing the little flying mammals to become disoriented and behave in ways that lead to their death – things like waking up from hibernation early, before there are enough insects out for the bats to eat, and the bats starve; or the bats become confused and can’t find their way to water or back to their caves; or the bats have trouble flying or breathing because the fungus also damages skin, muscles, and other tissues.

In the past five years over 6 million bats have died because of this disease, and almost 90 percent of all bats in each colony – groups of bats living together, usually in caves. Scientists have been studying the outbreak, which began in the eastern US and has now spread to the Midwest and portions of Canada, but so far no one knows why the disease is so devastating, how it’s spreading so quickly, or how it can be stopped. What is known is the fungus is NOT native to North America but originates in Europe, where over thousands of years the bats there have found a way to live with the fungus. And it’s known the fungus – microscopically small – can be easily transferred on other animals, equipment, or clothing. The fungus is only dangerous to mammals with naturally low body temperatures, and in North America the only mammals that fit that category are bats. So it looks like spelunkers– people who enjoy adventuring and discovering caves – probably were exploring in Europe, mistakenly picked up the fungus, and didn’t clean their gear before they came to the United States where the fungus found a new home with bats that have no way to protect themselves. And now the fungus can be spread from bat to bat, or from other animals to bats, or maybe even through the air.

BatGate USFS

The BatGate: Bats go in, people stay out. Unless you ask Alfred.

But, the US Forest Service is trying to protect bats that haven’t yet been exposed to the disease by renewing, for the third year in a row, an emergency closure rule of all caves on national forest property in the Rocky Mountain Region, and other Forest Service Regions in the West are considering similar rules. This means there can be no exploring, adventuring, or disturbing caves or cave-life and this will hopefully stop any movement of fungus that tries to hitch a ride on someones’ gear or jacket.

Every night a single bat can eat almost half it’s weight in insects. So with fewer bats, there are more insects like mosquitos and flying ants and beetles and other insects that could be harmful to humans, or, like the pine beetle, entire ecosystems. We hope the rules to help bats, and scientists studying white-nose discover soon what we can do to stop the disease and keep the bat population healthy.

Posted August 29, 2012 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in ECOVIA Central

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