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Struck out: Fatal fungus could kill off U.S. Northeast’s little brown bats in 20 years

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I recently came home from a two-week workshop in remote Vermont, where I was pleased to hear of my fellow students’ encounters there with bats. Several of the animals kept sneaking into one of the local hotels, and one curled up in a classmate’s hair for a few minutes’ nap.

Although most people (including the guy with the bat-attracting hair) are scared of these flying mammals, I saw the silver lining in these stories. As we have previously reported, 95 percent of Vermont’s bats have been killed by the deadly fungal infection known as white-nose syndrome (WNS), but at least the bats in that one small town are doing well.

That’s not the case in New York State, where WNS was first observed in 2006. According to a study published August 6 in Science, WNS will wipe out the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) there, if not the entire northeastern U.S., within 16 to 20 years.

Ecologist Thomas Kunz of Boston University (B.U.) and a team of researchers started out by calculating the mortality rate of little brown bats in caves where WNS occurs. On average, 73 percent of the bats died. With this annual death rate representing 45 percent of the entire local M. lucifugus population, Kunz and his team calculated a 99 percent probability of regional extinction in less than two decades.

WNS hasn’t spread throughout the country, however, so the species remains safe—for now—in many of its other habitats.

Meanwhile, because bats play a major role in insect control (yummy), a rise in insect populations (due to a decline in bats) could harm crops or increase the spread of disease.

“Bats are important insect predators,” the report’s lead author, B.U. postdoctoral researcher Winifred Frick, told WNBC-TV. “An individual little brown bat will eat its body weight in insects each night.”

The research focused on the little brown bat, which remains one of the U.S.’s most common bat species. WNS has been observed in eight other bat species nationwide.

Frick and the other researchers say one way to possibly slow the spread of the fungus is for people to build bat houses in their backyards, giving the mammals a safe place to reproduce in the summer. If you’re not afraid of bats, and you live in the Northeast, some at-risk bats could thank you for this simple conservation action—one way could be with a reduced mosquito population in your neighborhood.

About that fear of bats: Another study, in the same issue of Science, looked at the perceived danger that bats can transmit rabies and other diseases to humans and surmises that the threat is not as great as it seems. Whereas bats can and do infect humans and other species, the likelihood of transmission is higher if the species share an evolutionary history. In other words, bats are more of a danger to other bats than they are to humans. The researchers sequenced genetic segments from 372 rabies viruses over a 10-year period, tracked the viruses’ lineage, and concluded that only one out of every 73 rabies transmissions from bats jumped species.

Photo: Bat with white-nose syndrome, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 7:03 am 08/18/2010

    This is very sad. I like bats. I have one living in the eaves of my house and I haven’t been bit by a mosquito all summer. Why don’t you tell us how to build a bat house and compass direction to place it so the little fellows can stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter and I will put one up immediately.

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  2. 2. JamesDavis 7:06 am 08/18/2010

    Sorry, I didn’t realize bat houses was hyperlinked in the article. I’m going to put one up tomorrow.

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  3. 3. Byrdsmaniac 8:27 am 08/18/2010

    I live in Central Vermont. After being scarce in this area for several years, bats appear to be making a comeback. This summer I have seen more bats than I have in a long time. Friends have made similar observations.

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  4. 4. 1:08 pm 09/28/2010

    As a <a href="">pest control</a> operator we are only to aware of the dangers to bats. As part of our training it was drummed into to us that we must protect bats at all times. We were often informed about the fines imposed on anyone who destroyed or disturbed bats nesting in a loft. I have yet to come a cross bats in the UK which shows how rare they really are. I hope that this fungal infection is stopped and hopefully prevent the reduction of bats

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  5. 5. flidhais 12:50 pm 05/16/2011

    I believe the bat deaths are directly related to the contrail spraying programs ( "Project Cloverleaf" , NASA, "Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather by 2025" USAF and others connected with creating artificial clouds and weather modification)

    It occurred to me that the fine aluminum oxide particulates and barium could create the "white nose" look on the bats. There are many other chemicals in the artificial cloud experiments however. I have only witnessed daytime spraying but other’s have reported night time persistent contrails. In US patents such as Welsbach patent the particulates are claimed to remain in the atmosphere for up to a year so that could account for daytime spraying and night time death by inhalation.

    Lists of the chemicals and pathogens being found in these "persistent contrails", laid down in the atmosphere, can be found on these websites:
    The particulates are sprayed daily across the USA and are impacting our pollinators as well as normal weather temperatures, photosynthesis and agricultural production here in Washington State. Often blue skies are totally hazed out by crisscrossed peristent contrails until there is not a trace of blue. This is causing a loss in normal sunshine. Washington growers are reporting crops delayed by a month and say April 2011 was the coldest on record.

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