The Thing About Bats

Undead! Undead! Undead!

In the Bad News About Bats department, reports on a story in the August 6 Science that an emerging fungal disease, white-nose syndrome, could wipe out the little brown bat, sometimes called the myotis bat, in a decade and a half.

The species, shown here in happier times belting out “Bela Lugosi is Dead” for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photographer while a chorus of black widow spiders provide beat-box bassline accompaniment and a barbershop quartet of reticulated pythons hiss out an a cappella approximation of that squirty guitar thing Daniel Ash is famous for, is one of the most common bats in North America and is endemic to the northeastern United States. It is not listed as an endangered or threatened species — but the annual mortality rate from this new disease may be as high as 73% per year. (That’s seventy-three! I see many sad bats in your future.) The disease has been seen in bat populations throughout the Northeast U.S. plus Tennessee, Oklahoma, and two Canadian provinces.

Bat affected by white nose syndrome

Little brown bat affected by white nose syndrome.

The fungal disease causes a white fuzz on the nose of the bats and lesions on the wings; it is speculated that this interrupts their hibernation and makes them burn fat reserves too quickly. The insectivorous bat eats many common crop pests as well as mosquitoes.

Lead author on the Science article Winifred F. Frick of Boston University and UC Santa Cruz (Slugs FTW!) points out that emerging diseases often cut a killing swath through populations and then slow down once weaker individuals have died. A concentrated population sometimes also a quicker spread of disease; as animals die, the spread of the disease may slow.

It’s unknown how the disease may be affecting the five other hibernating bat species in the region; Frick describes the disease as “a terrible, natural experiment to see how important bats are to the ecosystem.”

Both images Public Domain from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Digital Gallery.

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