Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Bat Emergency

Baby bat on my gloved finger (c) John AshleyOne of the most dangerous disease spreaders is, of course, the mosquito. Which is just one more reason why I love bats. Bats are smart, shy and reclusive -- and they literally eat tons of mosquitos. Once you learn what bats are really all about, you'll love them as much as I do. Okay, maybe not. But at least you might gain some respect for these amazing animals.

The good news is, several dedicated groups are working hard to erode the mis-information and myths that surround bats:

VISION. Bats are not blind. In fact, they see quite well. And their echolocation is thousands of times more efficient than anything humans have been able to build.

RABIES. Bats do not "carry" rabies, and less than one-half of one percent of bats actually contract the disease. When infected they do not become aggressive, but tend to become listless and die rather quickly. (Little brown bats -- our most common species -- have never been documented transmitting any disease to a human.) More people die from domestic dog attacks every year than die from bat rabies in a decade. Statistically speaking, we would be hundreds of times safer if we got rid of bicycles instead of bats.

INSECTS. Our most common bat here in Montana, the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), lives near ponds and lakes, eating up to 1,200 mosquitoes per hour. Think about how that might impact West Nile Virus, which is carried by mosquitoes and is fatal to humans. The big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) eats night-flying insects that plague our crops. Just one example -- one big brown bat can eat enough cucumber beetles in one summer to eliminate 220,000 of the root worm larvae. Without bats, how much more expensive would your favorite foods be due to crop losses and increases in pesticide use?

Townsend's Big-eared Bat (c) John AshleyPOLLINATION. World-wide, bat pollinate and disperse the seeds of more than 450 food crop species and 80 medicinal plant species. More than 95% of rainforest regrowth comes from seeds dispersed by bats.

The bad news is, bats now face a new threat to their survival. White-nose Syndrome (WNS), is named for a white fungus that appears on the faces of infected bats. Since its discovery in a single New York cave in 2006, WNS has killed more than a million hibernating bats. The mosquito-eating, little brown bats appear to be the hardest hit. WNS is rapidly spreading south and west, and it's about 95% fatal. A number of bat species are at risk of going extinct within a matter of years, unless we can find a solution to the WNS emergency. To learn more about WNS and how you might help, read more at Bat Conservation International (link below).

If you'd like to hear some personal stories about bats, check out my blog entry on some of my batty experiences. That essay includes the story of the baby bat (called a "pup") shown at the top. She's about one week old, and she's probably a little brown bat. She apparently fell out of a nursery colony, or she was accidentally dropped in flight by her mother. Like the future of all bats, her fate is unknown.

Bat Links:

What to do if you find a bat
Bat Conservation International
Bats of Montana

Behind the lens: Bat pup photographed with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20 "point and shoot" on macro mode. My apologies for the distorted, leather-gloved fingers...