Fungus And Other Factors Are Killing Off Bats

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Without bats in the world, there would be no tequila—the animals are responsible for pollinating agave, the plant from which the Mexican liquor is made.But these mammals are in trouble, and margaritas may be soon as well.

Over the last few years, a fungal disease and other factors have been wiping out millions of bats in the Northeast and threatening nearly every species, including the big brown bat that comes to the East End in the summer.

The fungal disease results in white-nose syndrome, the accumulation of little white spores on the muzzles of cave-dwelling bats while they’re hibernating in the winter. The fungus interrupts their sleep and causes them to burn massive amounts of energy waking up, eventually exhausting them, and then they end up starving to death because there are no insects for them to eat at that time of year.

More than 5.7 million bats have died from white-nose syndrome since it first surfaced in a cave outside Albany in 2006, according to the Organization for Bat Conservation, a non-profit based in Michigan.

Bat experts from that organization and other interested parties gathered at the home of Dr. Bill Schutt in Hampton Bays on Sunday to discuss the issue and what they can do to alleviate it.

Dr. Schutt, a biology professor at LIU Post and a research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History, has spent years studying bats and fears that some species in the United States will not be around in the near future, as the Indiana bat has already been endangered since the 1960s and is even further threatened because of white-nose syndrome.

“There’s bound to be extinctions,” Dr. Schutt said. “We may be experiencing the greatest decimation of wildlife in recorded history.”

Experts believe the fungus traveled here from Europe on a person’s clothing. They also think that white-nose syndrome, which doesn’t affect humans, was a problem on that continent a while back, but that the bats there have grown immune to it over time. The syndrome has become so problematic here, though, that it has spread throughout 25 states as far west as Wisconsin and to five Canadian provinces, thanks to the wind and other carriers.

Wind turbines also pose a problem for bats. Many wind farms happen to be situated right in the middle of migratory bat routes, and the change in air pressure when the turbines are operating can cause a bat’s lungs to explode mid-flight. Turbines turn on automatically when the wind reaches 8 miles per hour; increasing that turn-on speed to 11 mph instead, which would result in a very small loss of energy, would spare bats because they are less active in that wind speed.

Gordian Raacke, executive director at Renewable Energy Long Island in East Hampton, said the wind industry is aware of the problem and open to researching ways to ease it.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing we should encourage,” Mr. Raacke said. “It makes wind power a little more costly, but if that’s what it takes to make sure bats aren’t hurt … we would 
support that. It’s an important issue.”

People are alarmed about this situation not simply because many bat species are threatened—and they are, after all, the only flying mammals in the world. Without bats, foods like bananas, avocados and dates would not be pollinated, crops would be destroyed by insects, and the mosquito population would be out of control, Dr. Schutt said. Here on Long Island and the East End, big brown bats in the summer eat more than 1,000 insects every night, according to Rob Mies, founder and executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation.

“Bats are critical to our existence,” Mr. Mies said. “Bats are key to many different [parts] in ecosystems.”

With fewer bats come more insects, and with more insects comes increased pesticide use on farms. Many local farmers are aware of the threats to bats and hang up bat boxes—little wooden, birdhouse-like structures where the mammals can roost—to attract the nocturnal fliers so they can eat up pests. Lyle Wells, owner of Wells Homestead Acres in Riverhead, which serves as a wholesale grower for markets throughout the island, said “there’s no question” that a decrease in bats will hurt his business. Although Mr. Wells already uses pesticides to kill off insects, having to use more poses a potential financial spike that would be hard to afford.

“Whenever you tip the balance in nature one way or another, it isn’t good,” said Mr. Wells, who noticed an influx of beetles on his farm just two weeks ago when the temperature suddenly increased. “It comes back to that predator-prey aspect.”

Agriculture experts have said they cannot determine how the loss of bats will affect agriculture and the economy because they have not been in decline long enough for any trends to be apparent. However, there will probably be grave consequences. Dr. Paul Curtis, an associate professor and wildlife specialist at Cornell University, pointed out that populations of corn earworm, located primarily in the South but on Long Island as well, have slowly been increasing, which poses a big threat to the country’s most widely grown grain.

Alanna Bayarin, a senior at General Douglas MacArthur High School in Levittown and a student of Dr. Schutt, has been researching whether the number of dragonflies on Long Island has changed as white-nose syndrome continues to kill big brown bats, which eat them. Ms. Bayarin said she has personally observed an increase in dragonflies in just Rockville Centre and Massapequa alone, where she conducted her study.

Bat experts have said there is not much people can do to prevent white-nose except to help fund research, and Dr. Schutt said it is hard to conduct research because it is difficult to replicate the low temperatures and high humidity in which the fungal spores grow. But there are still some ways to help bats. Mr. Mies and his organization are launching a “Save the Bats” campaign this fall that will consist of three components: education, citizen conservation and accruing research funds. The campaign will distribute literature to schools and nature conservation sites, develop lecture programs, raise research money through donations, and teach people how they can help from home. A way to start, Mr. Mies suggested, is by planting wildflowers to attract insects and bats and hanging up bat houses so they have a place to roost after eating. For more information, visit batconservation.org.

“There’s no telling if these 
bats are going to recover,” Dr. Schutt said. “These animals 
are reeling.”

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