A biological meltdown is occurring right before our eyes. The survival of North American bats, including several federally listed endangered species, is at stake. In addition to dealing a tremendous blow to biodiversity, losing insect-eating bats could trigger explosive increases in insect populations, with serious repercussions for agriculture, forestry, and possibly even human health.
A deadly new disease called white-nose syndrome has swept several eastern states over the past two winters, killing bats where they overwinter — sometimes wiping out entire hibernation sites. To date, over 1 million bats are estimated to have died from the disease. White-nose syndrome was first documented near Albany, New York in the winter of 2006-2007. Since then, it has spread rapidly throughout the state and into neighboring Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Last winter, the disease was discovered in five new states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Virginia. If current trends continue, the disease could soon hit some of the most significant bat caves in the world, located in the South and Midwest.
Among the bat species at risk are the federally listed Indiana bat, Virginia big-eared bat, and gray bat. Winter surveys this year indicate that Indiana bats have declined dramatically in New York, where the species had previously been staging a recovery. Virginia big-eared bats are especially vulnerable to an epidemic like white-nose syndrome; their entire global population winters in only a few caves in West Virginia and nearby states.
Bats play a vital role in healthy, balanced ecosystems. They consume enormous quantities of insects, including many that humans find problematic, such as mosquitoes and crop-eating moths and beetles. Research has shown that bats significantly reduce damage to crops. Without bats, agricultural losses and costs to protect crops would rise. In a cruel twist, pesticides and other environmental toxins are suspected as one cause of long-term bat population declines. Increased use of pesticides to offset the loss of bats would lead to a disastrous spiral effect with escalating harms to both wildlife and people.
To learn more about bats in Manitoba, (which are not currently affected by this horrible disease), please call the Education Department and book into our “Going Batty” program or visit www.zoosociety.com.
For more information on white-nose syndrome, please visit the Center for Biological Diversity at www.biologicaldiversity.org. Thanks to the Center for providing the information posted in this blog.