This past June, scientists, conservationists, and government representatives held an emergency conference on white-nose syndrome, an unexplained malady afflicting bats in the Northeastern United States in huge numbers. Alan Hicks, a bat specialist with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, estimates that as many as 200,000 bats have died of the ailment in the two years since it was discovered in several caves not far from the conference site in Albany.
Since its discovery, white-nose syndrome, so-called because the dead bats often have a white fungus on their muzzles, has spread to other parts of New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and possibly Pennsylvania. The meeting was organized by Bat Conservation International, Boston University, the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Geological Survey, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This is the most serious situation facing bats in recorded history,” said Merlin Tuttle, president of Bat Conservation International and one of the conference’s main organizers. “We have an unidentified cause killing off up to 90 percent of bats of multiple species.”
Some have observed similarities between the massive bat die-offs and colony collapse disorder, which has killed large numbers of bees (see Lee Hall’s “Making a Space for Bees” in ActionLine, Spring 2008). No evidence exists connecting the two, but Tuttle noted that the twin calamities are like “canaries in the coal mine. We need to pay attention to what we’re doing to the planet.”
Tuttle said the June conference was called to consolidate research directions, making the race to solve the mystery of white-nose syndrome more effective and efficient. Several questions must be addressed. The bats with the syndrome are emaciated, nearly starving during their winter hibernation. Why is that? Are pathogens responsible for the die-off? Are there contaminants in the bats’ environment or their food supply? Is climate change or insect abundance somehow related? Is it a combination of factors?
Consequences to the Biocommunity
Most of the bats so far affected by the die-off are little brown bats and the endangered Indiana bats. But the disease continues to spread, putting whole species at risk of extinction. Migratory bats, potential carriers to other bat communities, fly long distances; and bats reproduce slowly, usually producing only one pup a year.
Susi von Oettingen, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, agrees that the die-off is unprecedented. And it will affect other members of the bats’ biocommunities. In von Oettingen’s words, “We don’t know what effect it will have on the insect population and the environment if bats disappear. But it’s going to be a hole in the ecosystem, and we don’t know what’s going to fill it.”
Economists are concerned as well. One study revealed that Brazilian free-tailed bats in southwestern Texas saved cotton farmers up to a sixth of the value of their crops by eating insects. Scott Darling, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Department in Vermont, said, “Logic dictates when you are potentially losing as many as half a million bats in this region, there are going to be ramifications for insect abundance in the summer.”
Hicks, the bat specialist who was one of the first researchers to begin studying white-nose syndrome, is dismayed by the general lack of concern about population declines of animals such as bats, bees and frogs. “My kids save frogs when they come out on the road after a rain. But will my grandchildren be able to do that?”
“There are people who argue against doing anything about it,” Hicks adds. “But I can’t live in a world without frogs croaking and bats flying.”
Intervening for the Bats
Like all free-living animals, bats should be understood as having the right to exist. So what can be done?
Several groups are taking action. In February, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and other federal agencies “to re-evaluate federal projects where any endangered bat in the East might be harmed in light of the threat of white-nose syndrome.”
One wind farm project in upstate New York has been put on hold at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until the syndrome is better understood. (To learn why wind turbines pose a threat to bats, see Lee Hall’s “Wind Farms - The Hype and the Hope” in ActionLine, Summer 2007.)
Developers of two other wind projects, however, have not responded to the request.