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A Million Bats Died and 694 Tons of Insects Lived

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 18, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
An emerging contagious disease called White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is killing hundreds of thousands of bats a year in the Northeastern United States, and scientists worry that some species could become extinct in coming decades.

Bats with the frothy looking white material on their noses, skin and wing membranes were first photographed in a cave in New York state in 2006, and biologists began to study the fungal WNS in 2007. Scientists estimate it has killed a million bats in 10 states, with potentially severe ecological and economic consequences. In most species, female bats produce only one baby a year, so population losses do not quickly recover.

Thomas Kunz is Director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University. DeeAnn Reeder is an assistant biology professor at Bucknell University who specializes in comparative behavior and physiology of mammals. They discussed Bats in Peril on Radio Times, broadcast by National Public Radio.

The two professors say bats are a keystone species, meaning that they have a disproportionate impact on their surroundings, like the architectural piecesat the apex of an arch that keep the other elementsin place. In ecology and architecture, the loss of those pieces brings collapse. Bats are unusual, numerous, and diverse, the profesors say.They are the only mammals that fly. One out of every five mammals is a bat, and their diets and habits vary widely. Seventy percent of bat species feed on insects that feed on agricultural crops and forests. Professor Kunz explains the million bats lost to disease would have eaten 694 tons of insects. Bats also eat plant pathogens. While some species eat fruit, frogs and fish, only three percent of bats feed on blood. They have good vision and extraordinary navigational abilities.

The fungus first seen in New York and has spread as far south as Tennessee. It appears to spread from bat to bat, sometimes killing up to 90 percent of a hibernating bat colony.The fungus is not known to harm humans and humans may be spreading it.When bats and other creatures hibernate in winter months their body temperatures drop and they tend to suppress their immune systems. In 2008 researchers discovered WNS was caused by an unusual Geomyces fungi, that likes cold and has been found in Antarctica. It's not clear howthe fungus is killing the bats. Professor Reeder explains the growth on their skin may be an irritant that wakes them inappropriately during hibernation, burning their stored body fat and inducing them into winter flights in futile search of food, and ultimately leading to their exhaustion and starvation.

It's maladaptive for a pathogen to kill its host, Professor Reeder says, so when a new pathogen moves into anew area, the result is a natural selection survival race between the fungus and the bats. She sees some hope for bat survival because bats afflicted with the fungus in Europe, where the pathogen seems to be older,have not died

"Bats have gotten bad press," Kunz observes. In Western culture, we tend to fear things that come out at night. In Chinese culture, bats are considered good luck. Professors Reeder and Kunz say citizen scientists can help improve understanding of bats and WNS by reporting discoveries of sick or dying bats, or disoriented bats flying in daylight. The US Geological Survey has an excellent web page on WNS and bats. The US Fish and Wildlife Service tells how you can help. Listen to the NPR broadcast here.

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