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The Plight of the Bats

Little Brown Bat with White-Nose Syndrome, New York, Oct. 2008. Credit: Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation

Best known as blood-sucking fiends associated with ghoulish creatures of the night, bats have gotten a bad rep for far too long. These night flyers are critical to a healthy ecosystem and are anything but a dark omen. They are a sign of fertile lands and biodiversity. As the slayers of insects, these sky puppies (as I like to call them) control the creepy crawler population. They also pollinate flowers and disperse seeds to help revive forests.

Fun Fact: In the United States, there are 40 different species of bats. Globally, there are approximately 847 known species.

Now that you know how important they are, it should alarm you to also learn that they are dying by the millions. White-Nose Syndrome, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, is a disease caused by a fungus that affects hibernating bats. Since 2007, this sickness has spread from Canada throughout the U.S. all the way down into Texas. So far, 33 states have reported this illness. Some locations have lost up to 90% of their bat populations.

What Happens?

Once a bat contracts this fungus, it colonizes on the animal's nose. The infected bat will then either starve to death or develop respiratory acidosis - an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. Basically, they suffocate. It's quite a horrific way to die, and there is no cure or treatment. Scientists are working on a vaccine, but have yet to be successful.

How Does It Spread?

You're probably thinking that bats are dirty critters that live in damp caves, so this fungal disease thing must be spreading from other bats, right? WRONG. We are the problem.

This disease does not spread through the air. Nor is it propagated from bat-to-bat. No, no. This fatal fungus travels via humans. Transported from cave-to-cave by happy-go-lucky tourists, this deadly saprophyte is trampled in on our shoes or falls from our clothing.

Arkansas Infiltration: In 2014, White-Nose Syndrome made its first appearance in Blanchard Springs Caverns in Mountain View, AR. With only a single victim, park officials were relieved to have not lost their entire bat population. Scientists are unsure about why the fungus did not spread rapidly in this case.

How Can We Help?

Many popular caves have closed or have severely restricted tourism. Others, like Blanchard Springs Caverns, have added a decontamination procedure that is required to gain entry into the cave systems. If you decide to head off on a cave expedition, don't complain when you have to soak your shoes. It's necessary.

If you would like to help further research, you can DONATE to the White Nose Syndrome Rapid Response Fund.

Until next time...



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