Bat Signal: More than 5 Million Bats Dead From White-Nose Syndrome

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John Macgregor / Getty Images

Bats in the Northeastern U.S. are dying by the millions of white-nose fungus.

An animal apocalypse is happening right beneath our noses in the Northeast. Since 2006, bats throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Jersey, Indiana and other states have been infected with a deadly white-nose fungus that has decimated animal populations. But because it is hard to track bat numbers—and because the disease causes afflicted bats to act strangely, often flying far from their nests where they may never be found—it’s been difficult to pin down just how severe the disease has become.

A new estimate released yesterday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), however, suggests that the toll is far worse than wildlife biologists believed. Between 5.7 million and 6.7 million bats are estimated to have died from white-nose fungus—five to six times more than a previous count done in 2009. Unless the bats can adapt to the fungus—or a treatment can be found—there is a real change that many bat species could be virtually wiped out in the Northeast, with serious consequences for the ecology of the region.

Mylea Bayless of the wildlife group Bat Conservation International laid out the consequences of the disease to Darryl Fears of the Washington Post:

 We’re watching a potential extinction event on the order of what we experienced with bison and passenger pigeons for this group of mammals.

The difference is we may be seeing the regional extinction of multiple species. Unlike some of the extinction events or population depletion events we’ve seen in the past, we’re looking at a whole group of animals here, not just one species. We don’t know what that means, but it could be catastrophic.

Catastrophic for the bats, obviously, but possibly for us as well. Bats are voracious insectavores—a single female bat of reproductive age can consume her weight in insects each night. Take away the bats and those insects may thrive—including agricultural pests that can ruin crops, as FWS director Dan Ashe says:

This startling new information illustrates the severity of the threat that white-nose syndrome poses for bats, as well as the scope of the problem facing our nation. Bats provide tremendous value to the U.S. economy as natural pest control for American farms and forests every year, while playing an essential role in helping to control insects that can spread disease to people.

More than 140 partners from the government and academic institutions met last week to plan a response to white-nose syndrome, but there’s been little progress made in the years since the disease was first discovered. One hope may lay with European bats—they were infected with a similar fungus but have managed to survive, and could provide clues to controlling the disease. But scientists need to hurry—time is running out for bats.