January 20th, 2012 by

Bats. Such a simple word immediately evokes a few distinct images in my brain: running and shrieking humans being swarmed by the flying mammals, a certain playboy billionaire who likes to masquerade as one and some blood-sucking fiends of Transylvania. Unfortunately for our winged friends, false images like these mean that their vital role in nature often goes unrecognized. And, if we’re not careful, we may not realize what we had in bats until they’re gone.

Eastern small-footed bat with white-nose syndrome

Eastern small-footed bat with white-nose syndrome. Credit: Ryan von Linden/NYDEC

You see, bats are some of the best pest controls we have, as they like to feast on the insects that plague our agricultural fields, our forests and our homes. According to Bat Conservation International, a brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour. And bats’ work doesn’t stop there: they’re also the main pollinators of many plant and trees species, including species like saguaro cacti, and help with seed dispersal. Essentially, they help keep ecosystems thriving every day.

And that’s why some news announced earlier this week is alarming: up to 6.7 million bats across 16 states and Canada have died in the last five years due to the deadly white-nose fungus. This fungus that eats through bats’ skin and membrane is indiscriminate: it’s wiping out bats across species lines. Speaking to The Washington Post, Bat Conservation International’s Mylea Bayless warns, “We’re watching a potential extinction event on the order of what we experienced with bison and passenger pigeons. … The difference is we may be seeing the regional extinction of multiple species. … We’re looking at a whole group of animals here, not just one species.” Since bats are long-lived mammals (five to 15 years on average) that only produce one offspring per year, these huge losses in their population will not be easily recovered.

Even though this news is upsetting enough on its own, it could get worse. Remember how I mentioned that bats eat insects? Well, that includes tree-destroying insects like the emerald ash borer. Since 2002, this beetle has destroyed 60 million ash trees from New York to Tennessee and beyond. And while scientists have been working on solutions to this devastating problem, the bats have been doing what they do best: chowing down on insects … like the ash borer. With fewer bats, will more beetles rise? It’s definitely possible.

With the white-nose fungus rapidly decimating bats populations, in May 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a national plan for combating the disease and saving the bats. For our sake, and the sake of our food and forests, let’s hope that this frightening fungus can be stopped and that our warm-blooded friends survive.