Verner: Time for a ‘save the bats’ movement
Itís always good to see an old friend after a long absence, especially if youíve been a bit worried about his health.
In this case, the friend was a bat.
Sitting outside at dusk one recent evening, I glimpsed a familiar shape silhouetted against the skyís waning glow. It was a bat, perhaps two of them ó the first Iíd seen this year. For as long as I can remember, these flying mammals have been a routine presence in the summer night, swooping and darting after moths, mosquitoes and other insects. Theyíre as much a part of natureís ballet as hummingbirds and butterflies, although not nearly as universally admired and appreciated.
There are fewer bats in the night skies now, however, and over the winter and early spring, Iíd wondered whether the bats Iíd watched months earlier had survived a deadly malady that has decimated bat populations in several states. A fungus known as white nose syndrome has killed more than a million hibernating bats in eastern North America since its discovery about five years ago, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. I wrote about the syndrome a few months back, shortly after researchers confirmed the presence of the fungus in two caves in the mountains of North Carolina. In the months since, the syndrome has been found in more states, spreading to at least 18 states and four Canadian provinces. In the Northeast, the most severely affected region thus far, bat population declines have exceeded 70 percent. Populations of one species, the little brown bat, have plummeted so suddenly that scientists expect it to disappear from the region within the next 20 years.
Now, federal officials are worried that at least two bat species may face extinction. Last week, the wildlife service initiated the process for bringing the eastern small-footed bat and the northern long-eared bat (both of which can be found in North Carolina) under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The two species are the first to be evaluated ó and would be the first to be classified as endangered and threatened ó because of white-nose syndrome.
Biologists donít yet fully understand the pathology of the underlying fungus (Geomyces destructans), which apparently damages the batsí wings, impairing their ability to regulate hydration and other metabolic processes during hibernation. Currently, the primary defense is to try to contain the syndromeís spread by limiting human visits to hibernation sites (which is why public access to caves has been restricted in North Carolina and other states).
As researchers race against time, wildlife officials are trying to increase public awareness of the threat, which Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has described as having ěfar-reaching ecological and economic impacts.î
But Iíve yet to see a ěSave the batsî bumper sticker. Bats suffer from a public-relations problem, in part related to exaggerated fears about rabid bats, bat infestations and batsí connection to witches, vampires and other phantasms. While many critters enjoy the benefits of heart-tugging movies or kid-friendly TV cartoons ó from Bambi and Barney the dinosaur to Wiley Coyote and Donald Duck ó bats get little love, and less respect.
Thatís a pity, because theyíre a critical thread in natureís complex tapestry, as well as fascinating creatures in their own right. If youíre a farmer, you may already know this. Bats are voracious consumers of moths, mosquitoes and other bugs. A recent analysis published in Science magazineís Policy Forum concluded that bats are worth about $3 billion a year in pest-control services to U.S. agricultural. Around the world, bat species perform other services, from pollenating fruit trees to dispersing seeds and providing guano-enriched fertilizer.
Bats are also marvels of high-tech navigation. Their echolocation systems enable them to forage at night, detecting a single moth or mosquito several feet away.
Researchers are still trying to unravel the evolutionary mechanisms by which bats developed this keen sonar, as well as the ways in which their prey try to thwart it. For instance, although bats like to eat moths, some moth species are toxic to them. These include tiger moths, which produce their own ultrasonic sounds that basically tell the bats: Iím not a midnight snack, so stay away. Recognizing a smart defensive move, other tastier moths employ mimicry, making similar sonic clicks that trick the bats into thinking theyíre toxic, too.
While the head of a bat may appear otherworldly, with its tiny teeth and huge ears, it assumes a different aspect when you learn that a mother bat can locate her individual offspring among hundreds or even thousands of tiny bat pups clustered tightly together on the roofs of caves.
A face only a mother could love?
Perhaps. But if you look more closely into the lives of bats, you may gain a new appreciation for these creatures of the night and the grave threat to their existence.
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post. You can find more information on white nose syndrome through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov/ whitenosesyndrome/) and Bat Conservation International (www.batcon.org)