A weekly homage to endangered species, large and small
(Original text written by Benjamin Ikenson)
They sleep hanging upside down … in dark, damp caves; They look like strange rodents with over-sized wings attached at their shoulder blades; And they typically take to the skies at night when the rest of us are getting ready for bed. It’s no wonder bats might have a freaky effect on some.
Take Myotis sodalist. Myotis means “mouse ear” and refers to the bat’s small, mouse-like ears. Sodalis means “companion.” The bat happens to be very social, clustering together in large numbers during hibernation. The bat’s common name is a little less straightforward. It’s called the Indiana bat not because its home is confined to the Hoosier State but because the first specimen to be described to science was found there, in southern Indiana’s Wyandotte Cave, in 1928. Its actual range includes most of the other states in the eastern half of the U.S. Unfortunately, its expansive distribution made the bat vulnerable to wide scale habitat destruction by the commercialization of caves, the blocking of cave entrances, and timber practices. Once among the most abundant mammals in the eastern United States, the Indiana bat became among the first on the endangered species list in 1967.
White Nose Syndrome
Since 2006, a mysterious fungus known as “white nose syndrome” has killed more than a million bats in the eastern United States. The epidemic is believed to have started in a cave near Albany, New York and has since spread up and down the Appalachian Mountains, from Maine to North Carolina, and is even starting to spread across the Midwest.
Researchers believe that a newly discovered fungus, Geomyces destructens, is responsible for causing white nose syndrome in bats that hibernate in caves. The fungus leads to a fuzzy white growth on the nose, ears and tail, which wakes the bats up during hibernation, causing them to waste precious energy reserves. Bats that use up their fat reserves in winter often do not survive until spring.
In May, the US Fish and Wildlife Service released a comprehensive plan to study the causes and impacts of white nose syndrome and hopefully identify potential treatment and prevention strategies.
Read more about white nose syndrome in Defenders magazine, including a narrated slideshow by writer Madeline Bodin.
What Good Are They?
Despite population declines, bats have come a long way insofar as their reputations are concerned. Long associated with horror and the occult, bats are now widely appreciated for the roles they play in, well, the real world.
Don’t like mosquitoes? The Indiana bat is your friend. Don’t want crops destroyed? Insect-eating bats work for the farm by providing free pest control. According to a study published in Science magazine, the loss of bats could result in crop damage totaling $3.7 billion per year. Oh, and by the way, if you just happen to be a microorganism living in a cave, bats might just be your (warning: analogy may be in poor “taste”) bread and butter: many forms of cave life depend on the nutrients in bat poop.