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Where Are The Bats?

August 13, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Blog by Rheanna Sand

 

With the possible exception of the Real Housewives, bats are the most repulsively fascinating mammals on the planet. They can fly. They're nocturnal. Insect-eaters use echolocation to snap up as many pests every night as birds do during the day. Some suck the blood of other mammals. One even hitched a ride on the Space Shuttle Discovery (RIP SpaceBat).

But now, like frog and rabbit species before them, North American bats are succumbing to an invasive fungal infection, this one caused by the appropriately named Geomyces destructans . The resulting disease, white-nose syndrome, is named for the fuzzy growth visible on exposed tissue, and causes, according to a paper by Winifred Frick and colleagues, "premature arousal, aberrant behaviour, and premature loss of critical fat reserves."

This may be normal for Real Housewives, but in bats, it causes them to wake up early from hibernation and starve to death. Mortality rates of 30 to 99% have been recorded in colonies in the past four years, averaging at almost 3 out of every 4 bats. As a result, hibernating bats in the northeastern US, as well as Ontario and Quebec, are in sharp decline. At least seven species have been affected, with around 1 million bats killed in total. The little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus, could be extinct in as little as 16 years if no action is taken.

Measures are moving forward, but may have little effect. Closing caves helps stop the spread from humans to bats, but not from bat to bat - and bats are very social creatures, congregating in creepy-sounding "hibernacula" to mate before overwintering. People are also building bat houses as a warmer, safer environment for them to breed and thrive.

 

The ultimate solution may come from the bats themselves: a few species have developed resistance to the fungus, and the hope is other species will get lucky as well.

Praying on a stack of "Origin of Species" with a small sacrifice to SpaceBat might do the trick.

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