A mysterious epidemic is devastating bat populations in the northeastern U.S., with more than 10,000 dead already this year. The disease is being called "White-Nose" Syndrome, after the powdery fungus that grows on the muzzles of infected bats. First discovered in four caves in upstate New York last January, the syndrome has returned this winter and is spreading rapidly across the region. Thirteen affected sites have been identified so far in New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts.
Scientists are working to determine the cause of the strange illness, which appears to starve the hibernating animals by depleting their fat reserves. Some dying bats appear disoriented or deranged, flying aimlessly about in the freezing air rather than sleeping in their warm roosts. Most troublingly, the disease can quickly overtake an entire population once introduced – one infected cave in New York lost 97 percent of its inhabitants. Bats can live for several decades and average only a single offspring annually; even a moderate die-off can have a dramatic long-term effect.
The peculiar symptoms and heavy mortality rates of White-Nose Syndrome have prompted some scientists to draw parallels to "colony collapse disorder," the unexplained epidemic that wiped out mass numbers of honeybees last spring. The widespread abandonment of beehives nearly disenfranchised many commercial beekepers around the world, raising serious concerns about the fate of pollinator-dependent farming and global food supplies.
A decline in bat populations can have a similarly devastating effect on agriculture, which relies heavily on the nocturnal hunters for controlling pests such as moths and beetles. Bats also feed on mosquitoes, helping to reduce human exposure to West Nile virus and other insect-transmitted diseases. As researchers struggle to understand the twin epidemics threatening honeybees and bats, the vital role these tiny creatures play in our world becomes painfully clear.
Image credit: "Carlsbad bats" by Tolka Rover, used under Creative Commons license.Tweet