Author: Jodie Owen/Friday, October 26, 2018/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Education, Wildlife Watching
Think bats are scary? Think again. While bats may get a bad rap — particularly around Halloween – they are an important part of our ecosystem, playing key roles in keeping us healthy and well fed.
Did you know that bats are one of Mother Nature’s best pest controllers? Bats eat TONS of pesky insects that can make us sick – like mosquitoes. In fact, they eat so many insects that they save $3.7 BILLION a year in pesticides for the corn industry alone. Even better, all bat species in North Carolina are insectivorous, meaning they eat only insects. No need to worry about blood-feeding vampire bats in the Tar Heel state!
Did you also know that bats are important pollinators and seed spreaders, both of which aid in plant production and forest regrowth? Tequila drinkers out there can thank the bat for their favorite libation – bats are the only pollinators of the agave plant, which is used to make tequila.
While bats may seem scary, the reality of a world without bats is scary — and all too real. You see, bats are in trouble. Big trouble because of the deadly disease known as White-nose Syndrome (WNS). This fungus has killed MILLIONS of bats in the eastern United States, including bats in North Carolina.
WNS is named for the whitish, fuzzy fungus that grows on the noses, wings and ears of bats during winter hibernation. Bats infected with WNS awaken more often during hibernation, which causes them to use essential fat reserves needed to get them through the winter. Without fat reserves, bats die.
Some bat hibernacula – caves and mines where bats hibernate — have experienced dramatic declines in population, particularly in the western part of the state.
Since 2006, when WNS was first discovered in New York, Wildlife Commission biologists, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have conducted winter surveys in bat hibernacula and have documented dramatic declines in bat populations, with three species in particular being hit the hardest. Since 2011, biologists have seen the following changes in hibernacula counts:
In fact, populations of the Northern long-eared bat have declined so precipitously that it is now on the federal endangered species list.
Even worse, WNS appears to be spreading. In 2017, which is the last year data have been available, Stokes County documented its first case of WNS in bat hibernacula.
These are sobering statistics certainly; however, hope is not lost. According to Katherine Caldwell Etchison, a Wildlife Commission bat biologist and self-proclaimed bat buff, while populations of bats have declined, she and other biologists are still seeing a few survivors in western North Carolina. They’re hoping that perhaps the survivors are/have developed a resistance or tolerance for WNS. Time will tell if this is true. “Long-term hibernacula monitoring has shown a leveling out in declines, so we’re hopeful that survivors will continue to hang on and that one day we’ll see population growth again. This summer was the first time since 2012 that a juvenile little brown bat was caught during summer mistnet surveys, indicating reproduction in the species.”
Even better news, bat species in the Coastal Plain have not taken the WNS hit that their western brethren have. As far as biologists know, WNS has not made it to the Coastal Plain yet and even it does, the bats may still have a fighting chance. Bats tend to be active during warm-ish nights on the Coastal Plain. To be the effective killing machine that it is, WNS needs consistently cold temperatures – between 41-56 degrees Fahrenheit, and bats are the perfect hosts when in hibernation because their body temperatures become nearly as cold as their hibernaculum. Since bats on the Coastal Plain don’t hibernate all winter, they could fight off a WNS-infection by warming up their body temperatures, ramping up their immune response, and building up vital fat serves by feeding on insects.
So, while the news could be better, it’s not all doom and gloom for our fellow mammals, which, by the way, are the only mammal that can fly. Fun fact: Flying squirrels don’t fly – they glide.
But back to the bat. There are things you can do to help bats survive this deadly disease. First, stay out of caves and mines. If you must visit one, go to Linville Caverns, the only commercial cave in western North Carolina. The folks there are helping to reduce the spread of WNS by asking visitors to disinfect footwear after visiting the cave by briefly stepping onto a special decontamination mat outside the cave.
Second, build a bat box. Bat Conservation International (batcon.org), a group that works to conserve the world’s bats and their ecosystem, has FREE bat-building plans for download, as well as a ton of useful information on conserving bat species. Check it out. Really.
Third, and perhaps most important, educate yourself and others (think neighbors, friends, co-workers, families – even the checkout clerk at your local grocery store) about bats and the invaluable ecological and economical roles they play in our lives.
And remember, the next time you see a bat, don’t think of it as scary. Think of it as your friend.
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