The Silence of the Bats

This brown bat is lucky -- he's just stunned momentarily. If there were white spots on his nose, he'd be dead. (Photo by Velo Steve/Flickr)

Is there anything Americans care less about than species extinction? It is as if their house were on fire, but they continue to watch TV because a) they didn’t need that stuff in the garage anyway, and b) it will probably go out by itself before it gets to the living room, c) it’s not their job to fight fires, and d) if it was really important it would be on television. Now that the fire has reached the living room — i.e., impending extinctions are a direct threat to the human food supply — Americans are at last responding. By turning up the TV.

I wrote here recently (The Silence of the Bees) about the ongoing devastation of the bee populations of American and Europe, which threatens crops that require pollination and provide about one third of our food supply. Meanwhile, another plague with some eerie similarities is laying waste the bat populations of the northeastern United States.

Like the bees’ Colony Collapse Disorder, the bats’ White-Nose Syndrome has flickered occasionally across the magic flat-screen mirror on the wall, chiefly to give anchors the opportunity to display sophomoric humor. Surely the death of a few of these critters, and the concern of the people who crawl around the floors of filthy caves to count the bodies, have nothing to do with us?

Last week, the cave-crawlers, who are in fact serious scientists, published their latest rigorous estimates of the number of bats to have succumbed to this mysterious disease. Not a few: nearly seven million. Seven times their previous estimate, made in 2009.

Patiently, the scientists explain when asked that there is, indeed, a human connection, a reason to believe that our living room is beginning to smolder. Bats, it turns out, are nature’s way of keeping insect populations — the ones that eat our crops and us — in check. A bat can eat its body weight in bugs every night. Those who don’t really care about the respite that gives growing crops should be reminded of this: the bats’ diet includes mosquitoes, which still kill more humans every year than any other creature. Smell the smoke yet?

White-Nose Syndrome, the name that induces giggles in ignorant TV anchors, derives from the fact that what is killing the bats is a fungus that destroys their skin and membranes, leaving behind a white powdery substance on their muzzles, ears and wings. By the time it appears on their noses, they are usually dead.

Although scientists know what is killing the bats, they don’t know any more about why than they do about the bees’ distress. European bats have the same fungus, but do not succumb to it. Why has it turned into a raging killer in the United States? We have no idea.

 Now this epidemic, first observed in a cave near Albany, New York, has spread throughout the Northeast and into the Midwest. Seven million dead. According to Mylea Bayless, speaking for Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas, “We’re watching a potential extinction event on the order of what we experienced with bison and passenger pigeons.”

And if this array of facts does not persuade that it is time to turn off the flatscreen and try to find a fire extinguisher, consider one more unnerving fact: White-Nose Syndrome first came to our attention at almost exactly the same time — the winter of 2006-07 — as did Colony Collapse Disorder.

Coincidence? I had a friend once, a police detective who spent most of his life figuring out why bad things happened to bad people. What he learned, he told me over and over, is that there is no such thing as a coincidence.

It’s getting hard to see the TV in all this smoke.


[For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]


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One Response to The Silence of the Bats

  1. Gail Zawacki says:

    My sentiments exactly. It’s not just Americans though. I just had an Australian scientist who shall remain nameless agree with me that trees are dying all over the world from exposure to tropospheric ozone – and then he wished me luck doing something about it!