Tom Kunz has been studying bats throughout New England for more than four decades. In annual treks to remote caves, he and other researchers from Boston University capture bats, banding them to track their migration patterns and movement over the years. During trips to bat hibernacula—the bats' winter hideouts—he grew accustomed to cave walls covered in huddled masses of bats, tens of thousands strong. Aeolus Cave in Vermont, the largest bat hibernaculum in the northeast, has long been a winter home for more than 100,000 bats. Kunz regards them fondly, like old friends. What he sees today brings him to tears.
Two years ago, a new, potent fungus was found rampaging through New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania, wiping out entire colonies of bats Kunz had studied since the Johnson administration. He and a group of graduate students visited Aeolus in January 2009 and were appalled at what they saw: Tracks in the snow made by crawling, starved bats; birds eviscerating bat carcasses outside the cave entrance; bats frozen into ice stalagmites, having died while trying to climb to higher ground; and a cave carpeted in bat bones.
"You couldn't step on the cave floor the last two winters without walking on dead bats. It was just horrible," Kunz said. "I'm not an emotional person, but I was in tears when I saw this ... it's just devastating. It's unprecedented in the annals of science."
As cold weather approaches, researchers are bracing for countless more animals to succumb to white-nose syndrome. Meanwhile, biologists are using laser cave-gates, infrared cameras, temperature-sensitive radio transmitters, genetic testing—even artificial caves to follow the bats and the fungus. They're hoping technology can lead them to clues about how the fungus evolved, why it is harder on certain bat species than on others, and maybe, how to stop it.
"With our traditional methods, we're stumped, so we are trying to figure out what we can do. We really look to technology to help us answer some of these questions," said DeeAnn Reeder, a biologist at Bucknell University.
Since 2006, about a million bats in the northeastern United States have died during hibernation. The culprit is white-nose syndrome (WNS), caused by a fungus called Geomyces destructans that biologists believe arrived from Europe. The bats awaken every few days, burning their precious fat reserves; ultimately, they freeze, starve to death or are picked off by opportunistic predators.
A study published in the journal Science in August suggested things will get even more dire for the little brown bat, the most common bat species. In the worst-case scenario, the study points to a regional extinction of 99 percent in 16 years. It's a grim picture, said Winifred Frick, lead author of that study and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
"These weren't like slowly declining and this thing is starting to get them. They were doing fine," she said.
Bats are highly social, hibernating in close quarters over winter and traveling over long distances to mate. G. destructans likely spreads from bat to bat, but researchers think humans could spread it, too; earlier this month, the US Fish & Wildlife Service closed caves in national parks and abandoned mines throughout the West, hoping to prevent unwitting spelunkers from spreading the fungus. The FWS also awarded $1.6 million to study the disease.
At an annual bat conference later this month in Denver, biologists will discuss efforts to prevent the fungus' spread into the western US and Mexico, where bats are key pollinators and insect predators.
A little brown bat will eat at least half its body weight in insects every night from April to October, Kunz said. When a female bat is nursing her pup — bats give birth to one pup per year — she will eat her entire body weight every night. Multiplied by a few million bats, that's several metric tons of insects removed from the air throughout North America.
In 2008, Kunz and a dozen collaborators studied the economic impact of 1.2 million Brazilian free-tailed bats in an 8-county region of Texas. They found that if the bats died out, farmers would have to spend $750,000 to $1.2 million on pesticides every summer to protect their cotton crops.
"Without bats, people are going to end up using more pesticides, there will be more water and soil contamination, more human contamination," Kunz said.
Rick Adams, a biology professor at the University of Northern Colorado, is preparing for the worst if WNS hits the western US. Affected colonies have an 80 to 100 percent mortality rate within two years, he noted.
"If it gets into the West, it's really going to accelerate even further and affect so many more species of bats," he said. "Ecologically, it would be an Armageddon type of scenario."
To track white-nose bats' errant behavior, Reeder and her colleagues at Bucknell glue bright dots onto bats' backs. The iButton data loggers are about the size of an M&M; to make them even smaller, Reeder and her team rip them open, cut down the circuit board and swap for lighter batteries.
"Half of what we do is really high tech, and half of it is duct tape and jury rigged," she said.
The devices can record 32,000 temperatures, providing a detailed profile of a bat's winter activities. They should be in a state of torpor, arousing no more than every couple weeks. But the iButtons show that sick bats wake up every couple days, Reeder said.
They also don't respond normally to touch, suggesting something is wrong with their sensory systems. Reeder uses a paintbrush to tickle bats and monitor their body temperature to gauge their reactions.
She also uses artificial caves—she describes them as glorified refrigerators—to compare healthy and sick bats' behavior and study the pathogen in a controlled environment. She has biologists in the field right now collecting bats and bringing them to her lab to hibernate in the artificial cave. She hopes to gather 500 bats through mid-November, she said.
Reeder has also been shocked by the losses of bats throughout Pennsylvania, her home turf. One of her heavily-studied sites, the Shindle Iron Mine, normally has more than 1,000 bats. Now it has six.
Kunz uses thermal cameras and closed-circuit televisions to count bats; he has worked with a visual algorithm system that can track each bat as a pixel on the screen, providing an accurate count.
Others are using an infrared laser "beam-break" system to track the bats. It involves pairs of lasers on either side of a cave entrance, said Mylea Bayless, conservationist with the Austin, Tex.-based group Bat Conservation International. Bats will break the beams as they enter and exit, and researchers can tell the direction of their movement by the way they break the beams. Biologists in Wisconsin developed the system to track bat populations, but it's also an effective way to watch for telltale signs of WNS.
"Bats flying around in January in Wisconisn is not normal. If we see peaks of activity during times of the year or times of day we consider to be abnormal, that can trigger an alert for a biologist to go check it out," Bayless said.
This summer, conservationists installed four systems at endangered bat sites in Kentucky and southern Indiana. There are plans to install more in Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri, but they're expensive, Bayless said.
Along with tracking ill bats, biologists are looking for ways to help survivors. Kunz is presenting a paper at the Denver conference on providing artificial roost spaces in buildings, especially in areas where bat populations have been decimated by WNS.
"When that happens, you don't have this warm body of bats clustered together, which facilitates growth of their young," he said.
Roost modules provide enclosed spaces where small numbers of bats can cozy up with each other, ensuring conditions are warm enough for pups to grow and mothers to produce milk.
Backyard bat boxes can also help, he said.
But much more work is needed to understand exactly what's happening and what biologists should do. The FWS grants provide some help, but biologists say they need more funding, for genetic testing to determine resistance; field tests to pinpoint the fungus before it is evident; and research for possible anti-fungal treatments. Mycologists said in September they had concocted a treatment for white-nose fungus, but bat biologists remain skeptical.
Adams believes bat losses will spur people to action simply because of the aftershocks.
"This is one of those situations where humans are definitely going to see the effects of it. It's like your health; you don't think about it or notice it until it's gone," he said. "Bats pull tremendous numbers of insects out of the air every night and we don't thank them for that often enough. When they disappear, people are really going to start noticing."
hope you feel it when you get west nile.
So a fungus is wiping out both bees and bats? I hope evolution and natural selection play their role and the bats and bees immune to this fungus/disease, survive and live on to reproduce passing on their genes.
I don't think we'll be able to help them in time.
'oh well' is about right, WE as human beings KNOW we're completely screwing the world over, and very few of us care, and the ones that do find it nearly impossible to do anything about the billions that simply don't care at all.
From pod's past comments, it's obvious he/she cares, maybe he/she is just tired of hearing about stuff that society doesn't care enough about to actually DO something about?
Hoping he/she gets west nile virus was mature....
Extinction is a natural process. Animals either adapt or die. Nothing on this planet is static, not the climate not the population. It is the height of arrogance for we humans to think that we are causing all that we believe is wrong or that we can or should “fix it”.
Perhaps it is simply time for these bats to die out. It is sad but not necessarily bad or unnatural
@shutterpod, so your one of the ones that care? Your writing comments on an electricity sucking machine probably with a 22 inch monitor, driving everywhere, using as many resources as the "billions who don't care".
So what makes a person good and caring is complaining about others doing what your doing? Their just not complaining so they're bad?
How did white nose fungus in some cave somewhere even get to be a human caused illness in your mind. People going around inoculating bats noses? Or the spores are kicked up by global warming caused winds?
I don't get it with the self hatred in comments on the internet. Not just the internet my local paper had an editor write a story about bed bugs where he said they weren't nearly as bad as the human infestation on the planet. What are you lizards in disguise? Get with the program, your part of this species, figure out solutions to the problems and stop with the sick festering self hatred you've been trained like pavlov's dog to regurgitate.
Bats will survive, the only real problem here is that some scientist got to get founds for their research so they have to pitch there project and acting like a mother whom children are about to die is a good way to attract attention.
What I think will happen is that 80% of bats will die, 20% will grow immunity and repopulate north america even if we care or not. I think it is really unlikely that 99% of bats dies, sounds like a big scam to get founding.
I have a question that I would find interesting to answer, how did the fungus got from europe to north america? Couldnt it be from one of those scientist who intentionnaly did it to get founding for is own little project, I know I sound synical, but I know alot of people who would do alot of evil things for money and I cant see how a fungus found on bat in europe can get to north america without human intervention.
One person who feels guilt can't change a world where people won't even accept the probability that we, as humans, are unnaturally causing a LOT of the problems we're currently facing.
I didn't use superlatives in my last comment, as in -ALL problems- being caused by us.
Don't courses of action generally follow dialog about the issues? Think before you act... that sort of thing? A large part of the problem are those people who refuse to admit that humankind is causing any problem at all. It's not self-hatred, it's extreme dislike for society as a singular entity, where individuals have little to no power to stop the whole.
And honestly, tell me where people are encouraged, or permitted, encouraged even, to live outside of society. Where, on earth, can people go and just live if they want to, for free? Are there any places left? Do we have any choices?
That being the case, I think the least we can do is acknowledge that we DO cause a lot of our own problems. And it's not caused by us simply wanting to live, flourish, and multiply, like any other animal that makes our activity unnatural, it's that we want every little gadget, nick nack, exotic food, and so forth. It's about being lazy in our construction, wasteful in our usage, and greedy in our desires.
Is that honest or fair enough? I think it's realistic... maybe I'm just nuts?
I was under the impression that readers of Popular Science would be relatively educated but the comments I read tell a diffreent story. When the number of bats fall below a certain threshold they will not recover. Extinction dosn't normally happen over only a few years. The result of this problem will be apparent very quickly. Masses of mosquitoes are nothing to look forward to. I've been to northern Ontario where there is a distinct hum at night from thousands of them. The wee little bats are in dire need of help they have made it possible to enjoy our lives. Look into the causes of the plagues in ancient Egypt or the pine beetle infestation in British Columbia. This is yet another domino in a long line but this one is going down fast.
Yes, but extinction from this fungus is unlikely. The issue is not the fungus killing the bats, but that it sufficiently irratates them so that they do not hybernate deeply enough to prevent starvation over the winter.
In the Southeast, for example, our little brown bats barley hybernate at all. They are often still out during warm spells in December and are back out by March. Also, since our bats do not need the extra heat, ours tend to be less gregarious.
Thus, while this would be a catastrophe for New England, the Southern little brown bats will likely survive, develop tolerance/immunity, and eventually repopulate colder climates.
sorry I didn't mean to jump on you, I just see comments about humanity akin to a virus or bacteria that needs exterminated popping up all over recently. I don't think it's by accident.
I actually agree with a most of your second comment, we may be looking at things similarly. Personal responsibility, being free. I think the people you see denying we cause problems are reacting like I did against a constant message of we are needful of extermination. We do cause problems I agree but many of those problems were created on purpose and they can be fixed without all the death that I see coming.
I see the same progressive idealogy that insists we must pay people to procreate (welfare) are the same idealogy that are now subtly pushing the human infestation eradication and screaming population is unsustainable. They create a problem so their actual "solution" will be accepted. It's what they wanted in the first place but knew noone would accept it without a clear and imminent threat. Make the problem and the same people who would have fought against your tyranny will beg you for it to save them. The same ideology that eats our freedom, tries to grab up the ideological "free spirit" enviro- hippy type message. They try to encompass complete tyranical government AND anarchy. They try to grab each ideological extreme so no matter where you go there they are.
These are the original eugenicists, their method has adapted over the decades, their ideology hasn't. That's why we have to stand against this way of thinking, even though the problems are real, they can be fixed without following those sociopaths that did so much to create them any more.
You are right about much of what you said. I think most people left right dem repub independant all feel the same way, to make things better. But the solutions are where the problem lives. Again didn't mean to jump on you so hard just worried at what I see coming from this way of thinking.
I'm with RangerDave on this.
This situation only highlights the hypocritical actions of the "environmentalist."
Constantly preaching to the world that we have to be in harmony with the Earth and do our best to not interfere with it's natural cycles, yet they create wildlife preserves, have an endangered species list to protect waning populations of animals and do things like interfere with the bat and bee epidemics.
Nature is obviously dictating that it's time for these creatures to be no more, yet we waste all this money and manpower fighting against the nature we're supposed to be in balance with.
If environmental conditions are squeezing out certain creations, it's very selfish and arrogant on our part to maintain a species in a world that doesn't have room for it anymore.
It's cruel, plain and simple...
I think that founding those kinda of research can motivate some ''ecologist'' to creat such fungus epidemic. Some people could do anything for fame and money, even those ecologist preachers, I think darwin would agree with me on this.
How could a fungus on bats in Europe can be infesting north american bats if its not from some human ecologist studying those bats? I dont know any other animals that could bring this fungus from Europe to North America then humans.
Apology accepted, Mycellium.
towards Vega.... Humankind hasn't been in 'harmony with nature' since we started farming. But chemical farming has increased the negative impacts of farming beyond what the rest of nature has evolved to deal with.
I use Google Earth a lot; anyone who can't see the extent, and thereby the harm we're doing by farming on the scale we do is just blind, intentionally so. We are living FAR beyond our means. If it were just us suffering from our mistakes, that'd be one thing, but we're dragging the entire biosphere down with us.
I don't have kids, nor will I ever have them, it's just not who I am. The older I get, the more I try to do better by those people around me, and to the earth I live on. I TRY. I compost my kitchen waste, yard waste, etc. I don't use chemical fertilizers in my yard at all. I try to grow a good variety of things, from ornamentals (which are food sources and shelter for lots of animals) to things we eat ourselves. I buy less meat than I ever had in my life. I go to farm markets, and make it a point to buy organic. I run maybe 30 gallons of gas through my car a month, far less than I used to. I reuse containers, and buy glass when I have a choice. I don't squash flies, I put them back outside. I don't kill spiders or any insects on purpose, except earwigs, because they flat destroy my plants.
The point is, I'm aware, and I strive to be honest in most of what I do. I'm also aware that far too few people care to be aware, or even try. I live in Washington state, and gorgeous as it is here, nearly any place you care to look you can find couches and refrigerators and bags of trash dumped over ravines.
I'll stop now....
My husband and I live in a rural, woods area of Southern France. Last year, during some renovation work of our house, construction workers left some openings on the wall around a window, which they intended to close after completing some roofing work, guess what? ....a whole colony of bats found its way to the small area inside between the roof and the ceiling! Initially I was very upset about the noise they (whatever they were! I wasn't aware they were bats!) made every early morning (our bedroom is right underneath!) during the summer when they "came back home" after a busy night. However, I started to notice the almost disappearance of mosquitoes at night! We could sleep with open windows (no screens) without being eaten up by any insects! My husband was about to have an exterminating company to get rid of "the squatters"... but... after this mosquito-free summer, I am considering making our "illegal tenants" sign a formal rental contract! In other words, I might not close their entrance, but make it official and pretty instead! :-)
Bats deaths are from fungal infection.
Humans have various cures for fungal infections. Think toes, yeast infections and such.
I do not see any reference to enlisting fungal infection experts to solve this.
Is there someone who can get the relevant experts on board?
Very much the helpful information. You have done the big and useful job.
<a href="http://www.photoswomens.com/">Russian women dating</a>
I agree with a lot of what you are saying shutterpod, and share all your concerns.
Unfortunately the unrelenting war waged by oil companies and many other corporations on the ecosystems of the world can not be stopped by our good deeds and responsible living as individuals. Unless a lot of us organize and take direct action, and tell our representatives and the corporations to stop treating the natural world like an endless source of materials and a bottomless waste pit, the natural world will continue its decline into abyss.
Accepting the universal truth that any living organism has intrinsic value, regardless of whether it has any economic value for humans or not, may be a good place to start.
Edward O. Wilson has a wonderful book called "The Future of Life", which touches on many of related issues.
Interesting the fact that a mold or fungi member is killing bats is not as heavily contested as it is when it harms humans. ie. Stachybotrys health effects.
Most likely because Bats don't have lawyers, yet. :)
Good article and far more important than people understand.Bats without public education have never been a popular species.Once the public is alerted and educated to how really cost effective and helpfull they are to mosquito and other insect abatement they get to it. I have seen stories where whole communities start throwing up bat roosts and celebrate their return.The flip side is bat roosts are perfect breeding grounds for fungus.Off the top of my head super heating the roosts during the day?Of coarse after cleaning out the guano and carcasses.UV lights sometimes have negative effect on fungus. Cross breeding the brown with other species that are fungus resistant.Sprays they would like off. They are one of those amazing night creatures we take for granted until they are gone.Get out the tiki torches boys its going to be a skeeter summer.
It's a macro battle between two kingdoms: animal and fungi. Recently, on many fronts, fungi is gaining the upper hand. Bees and Bats. Wheat rust spreading out of Africa. Potato blight in the southern US. Major insurance companies excluding mold claims on your homeowners coverage.
Multiple modality resistant hand fungal infections spreading in hospitals. Wonder who will prevail?
oh the things i wish to say but to save myself teh typing respectforall, mycellium and shutterpod pretty much hit the nail on the head. altho i cant say pushing humanity close to extinction wouldn't unify and radically change our ways, but its definitly not sumthing that needs to be done.
We're on the brink of so many jumps in technology its impossible to conceive what will come in our lifetimes.
excuse the spelling. i dont much care for it