Just as news of the massive bee die-off is fading though not over, the plight of bats in the United States is starting to surface. A massive bat die-off is happening. Their extinction may be at hand. Why worry? Bats are the world’s greatest insect eaters. A single nursing bat can eat half its weight in insects daily. A small brown bat can eat as many as 600 mosquitoes an hour. The Mexican free-tails from Bracken Cave, Texas, eat approximately 2,000 tons of insects nightly. What could this mean for you?
Bats are key elements in rain forest ecosystems which rely on them to pollinate flowers and disperse seeds for countless trees and shrubs. In the wild, important agricultural plants, from bananas, breadfruit and mangoes to cashews, dates, and figs rely on bats for pollination and seed dispersal. There are more than 300 plant species that rely on the pollinating and seed dispersal services of bats.
The implications for agriculture are enormous! The spread of severe communicable diseases could be devastating. With fewer bats, you may expect a swarm of mosquitos this summer.
The epicenter of this annihilation is New York, but there are reports of die offs from as far away as Texas. Reports began trickling in last year. It started with hikers noticing dead and dying bats littered outside the caves where they hibernate. They do not normally fly during the winter or daytime, and it was quickly realized that bats flying when they should be hibernating do not survive. They are, therefore, being called “dead bats flying”. The loss of bats has cascaded this winter to the point where researchers are expressing fear that an extinction is underway.
The cause is unknown, though there is a name for the phenomenon, White Nose Syndrome. It’s the result of a fungus that’s particularly obvious on the nose and face, though it’s found dotted all over the bats’ bodies. It is believed, though, to be only a symptom of an underlying problem, as yet unknown. There are theories, of course. Causes like virus and bacterial infections are possible. Many bats have been found to have pneumonia, but it is considered to be a secondary symptom, like the fungus.
A more likely cause of bat die off is the use of pesticides. Bats are known to be sensitive to the same toxins used to kill insects — just as we humans are. The fact that there are newly-introduced pesticides, specifically designed to stop West Nile Virus, is suspicious. It may be that the bats are starving from lack of food as a result of the new pesticides’ effectiveness. This could be the worst possible scenario, since the ultimate effect of all pesticides has been the development of pesticide resistant insects. If the bats disappear because of starvation, then eventually, when the insects have become resistant, there will be nothing to control them.
There is reason to believe that starvation is the primary cause of death. Dead bats’ fat reserves are depleted. Whether this is the result of infection, toxins, or loss of food is unknown.
The bats’ behavior is severely disturbed. As previously noted, they never fly during the day or in winter. Only sick and dying bats have been emerging from their caves during the day in the winter, when they are normally hibernating. They are also noted to be hibernating close to the caves’ entrances, in contrast with their usual inclination to go deeper inside. This might be the result of being forced to search for food, but may also be caused by another disturbance. Many diseases change the behavior of their victims. A well-known example of this is aggressiveness and fear of water in rabies victims.
What Bat Die-Off Means to Humanity
The first problem people note may be a profusion of mosquitoes this year. Bats are nature’s primary means of controlling mosquito populations. Although it’s possible that the excessive use of pesticides will keep this under control temporarily, the day must come when the piper will be paid, as new toxin-resistant mosquitoes develop. Ultimately, these diseases are likely to multiply aggressively — but by then, the bats that keep them under control may be gone.
Major diseases borne by mosquitoes include West Nile Fever, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Malaria, and Dengue Fever. All of them are severe and life-threatening.
Crops may be affected. Bats are significant controllers of many crop destructive insects. As with diseases, the severity of the risk is dependent on how long it takes to manifest — the longer, the worse the effects. If pesticide use results in crop loss occurring later, after the bats are gone, then it is likely to be devastating.
What the Experts Are Saying
The president of Bat Conservation International, Merlin Tuttle, has stated, “So far as we can tell at this point, this may be the most serious threat to North American bats we’ve experienced in recorded history.”
A wildlife biologist with Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department, Scott Darling says, “Logic dictates when you are potentially losing as many as a half a million bats in this region, there are going to be ramifications for insect abundance in the coming summer.” “Ramifications for insect abundance” can be translated as massive mosquito outbreaks.
Unfortunately, there is much about bats that is unknown. Even how many exist is in question, as new hibernacula (caves where bats hibernate) are being discovered as bat bodies littered at previously unknown cave entrances are discovered. This means that the benefits of bats’ voracious insect-eating habits have gone unrecorded, indicating that the cost of their loss may be even greater than realized. Elizabeth Buckles, an assistant professor at Cornell who coordinates bat research, has said, “We’re going to learn an awful lot about bats in a comprehensive way that very few animal species have been looked at. That’s good. But it’s unfortunate it has to be under these circumstances.”
A study of the impact of Brazilian free-tailed bats of southwestern Texas has shown their economic value to cotton farmers to be worth between one-eighth and one-sixth of the commercial value of the crops.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that most bats can raise only one offspring a year. Thomas French, assistant director for natural heritage and endangered species of MassWildLife in Massachusetts, says, “High bat mortality is a major concern because bats have a low reproductive rate. Most bats raise one pup per year. It will take decades for bat populations to rebound after a large die-off.” Al Hicks, of New York’s Environmental Conservation Department says, “If we assume only 50 percent decline at the new sites, we are talking hundreds of thousands of bats that could die.” New York has seen at least one bat cave’s population crash by 90% this winter.
Other Benefits from Bats
Bat droppings (guano) is one of the best natural fertilizers available for man. In addition, scientists believe that the bacteria found in this guano may be useful in cleaning lakes and streams of industrial pollution. Guano is being used as fertilizer in the Keta area in Ghana.
There are only a few animals that use echolotion and none as successfully as the bat. Researchers believe that studying bats can provide clues that will aid the blind with mobility.
Vampire bats have a blood thinning agent much stronger than any other known anticoagulant. This agent will one day help thin the blood of people who have heart attacks and strokes. Whether it’s the loss of bees or bats or some other creature or plant, in the end, we lose, too.
Bats: Pets or Pests?
Bats are wild animals, with minds of their own, so there are no guarantees they will stay around if you see them in your garden, attic, under bridges, in parking garages or out buildings. But there are things you can do to create a good “bat environment”. You can provide homes (bat houses), water (ponds), or food (plants or lights that attract night-flying insects). Night blooming plants such as salvia, silene, phlox, stock, spearmint, cornflower, four-o’clocks, moonflower and nicotania attract insects at night. Lights in gardens and on porches attract insects. Some people use lights with solar batteries to save electricity.
Bats make very poor pets. They are not cuddly. They are exceedingly delicate creatures that should not be handled. They spend most of their time asleep unless they are foraging. It is very difficult to provide them with a nutritious diet. There is no rabies vaccine for them the way there is for your dogs and cats. The best pets are animals that are domesticated, a process that takes thousands of years, but results in animals that can live happily with humans.
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