With new discoveries of white nose syndrome, the mysterious bat disease, in Indiana and North Carolina, the scourge has now been documented in 16 states and two Canadian provinces, from New Hampshire to Oklahoma, according to the accounting of the Center for Biological Diversity.
This follows recent news that in New York, where the disease was first discovered in 2006, several bat species have vanished completely from caves and mines where they were once abundant; and that the little brown bat, once the most common species in the Northeast, could disappear from the region if not protected by the Endangered Species Act (or more directly, if a way to stop the spread of white nose syndrome isn't found).
At least 9 species diagnosed with white nose syndrome are endangered bats at risk of extinction from the disease. Already, that die-off has resulted in 700 fewer tons of insects consumed by the insectivorous bats, according to one study. That, in turn, could spur more farmers to use more toxic pesticides, since several bat species eat agricultural pests.
What causes the disease, which is marked by a ring of white fungus around the bats' noses? Is it a change in the environment? A virus? A chemical poison?
As with colony collapse disorder, that mysterious malady causing honeybees to inexplicably flee their hives, the bat malady has a suitably mysterious name: white nose syndrome. Scientists have noted a ring of white fungus on the noses of dead and dying bats. They don't know for sure if it's a cause of death or a consequence, or something in between. Emaciation seems the most obvious cause of death, but what's causing it is still unclear.
Spelunkers have been asked to stay out of caves across the Northeast and into the South and Midwest. Scientists worry cavers might spread the disease to new caves.
The U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., along with states, colleges and volunteers, are studying caves and carcasses. In 2008, the USGS put out a Wildlife Health Bulletin to state and private wildlife biologists the rough equivalent of a police APB, or all points bulletin. Be on the lookout for dead bats, and be suspicious of potential causes.
"Anyone finding sick or dead bats should avoid handling them and should contact their state wildlife conservation agency or the nearest U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service field office to report their observation," said USGS wildlife disease specialist Dr. Kimberli Miller.
Beekeepers have bemoaned the slow pace of research into the cause of colony collapse disorder since it first made national news more than a year ago. That's for the bee, whose role in keeping food on our table is well known they're responsible for pollinating roughly one-third of the crops we eat. Bats play a much less-appreciated role in the environment. They eat bugs, sure, but most people still wouldn't struggle to save them, even if they eat mosquitoes and farm pests. Bats haven't been commercialized. The federal government recently released a plan to address the disease, but critics say it's inadequate, and inadequately funded.
In that respect, white nose syndrome may be like the frog crisis. Many Americans are unaware that they've already lost many of the native frogs to the encroachment of a deadly fungus killing off amphibians worldwide. It's marched across the landscape, removing frogs and toads along its path, and scientists have struggled to find enough money to study it and hold out little hope of slowing its spread. It's got a name: chytrid fungus.
What, if any, commonalities these maladies have is unclear. But when whole categories of organisms begin to decline all bees, bats and frogs it's disturbing, indeed.
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