The Real Horror Story Would Be If Bats Disappear

Especially around Halloween, we revel in creepy myths about deadly blood-sucking bats, mean creatures that fly into people’s hair and vampires that turn into bats.  I won’t deny it is fun.

bats

Bats emerge from Davis Cave in Texas. Photo by Ann Froschauer/USFWS

But we tend to forget how much bats do for us – pollinating crops, eating pests that disturb crops and forests, teaching the military about flight. And we ignore how much danger bats are in.

For the Florida bonneted bat, which we just proposed for Endangered Species Act protection, threats include habitat destruction and alteration, low population size, hurricanes or prolonged cold events, removal or displacement by people, and potential impacts from pesticides.

Mariana fruit bats, another Endangered Species, have been harmed by among other things alien plant species and the brown tree snake on Guam.

But none of these threats comes close to the nightmare scenario of white-nose syndrome (WNS), which is threatening to wipe bats out in the eastern United States and Canada and is spreading.

 Lesser prairie chickenThis northern long-eared bat was caught in a mistnet and is about to be released. Photo by Scott Bergeson, Indiana State University.

White-nose is the primary reason we recently proposed giving the Northern long-eared bat Endangered Species Act protection – populations of the northern long-eared bat in the Northeast have declined 99 percent since symptoms of white-nose syndrome were first observed in 2006-07.

The long-eared bat is far from the only bat imperiled by the disease, but it is the first species proposed for protection that cites WNS specifically.

Discovered in New York, WNS has spread rapidly north, south and west, wiping out nearly 6 million bats of many species. It has left a trail of caves and mines where bats should be hibernating empty of everything but bones. And it is still going.

Even worse: The disease, at least for now, can’t be stopped.

Like many horror stories, this one includes mysteries as well.

  • Why, for instance, does the disease kill North American bats but not their European cousins? The fungus that causes white-nose is believed to have been brought to our shores inadvertently, maybe from Europe. And European bats are sometimes infected by the white-nose fungus, but they aren’t bothered by it.
  • How did it come to North America? We’ll never know, most likely. Most of us don’t think twice about global travel. But invasive species and pathogens – like the fungus that causes WNS – can come back with us from vacation – a small bit of soil wedged in a shoe is all it takes to move the WNS fungus to a new location.
• Our Northeast Region produced a great poster on white-nose syndrome and reminds us how valuable bats are.
• From our partners at USGS: Trick or Treat? The Frightening Threats to Bats
• And the Forest Service has a video on the Battle for Bats

Before this tale becomes too harrowing, here’s some good news. More than 100 agencies and organizations are working together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve North American bats, and we have come a long way in just a short time.

You too have an important role to play in the fight against white-nose, and there are many ways you can help. Here are a few:

  • The fungus that causes WNS can stick around for years even after it has killed off all the bats in a certain cave. Make sure you aren’t spreading WNS. Cave explorers and researchers should honor cave closures and decontaminate clothing, footwear and gear before and after visiting caves.
  • Help provide good summer habitat for bats by building a bat box! Up to 100 bats can live in a bat box.
  • Keep an eye on bats in your neighborhood. One symptom of WNS is inability to hibernate properly, so you shouldn’t see many bats from December to March. If you do, or if you see other odd behavior – like bats flying during the day – let your state wildlife agency know.

This horror story can’t have a tragic end – bats are too important – and legions of biologists are working to save them.

As you watch your favorite Dracula movie , please remember that bats are not as hard to kill as that famous vampire.  Plus, they are infinitely nicer and more helpful to humanity.  And they need our help.

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Last updated: August 31, 2011