Don't Fear Bats; Fear Losing Them

Oct 28, 2015

Bats and Halloween go wing in hand. They're shrouded in myth and lore and are the stuff of creepy tales and film. However, they are a very important part of our biodiversity and are being decimated by disease. Not a good thing.

Mark Ford is an Associate Professor and Unit Leader of the Cooperative Research Unit of the Virginia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Virginia Tech.  He says we have nine to 12 species of bats that can be found in Virginia:

"Some of which are in Virginia year round... They spend their winters hibernating in caves and mines and then in the spring and summer they're out roosting in trees rearing their young and foraging for insects. And then we have another set of bats. Such as the eastern red bat and the hoary bat, which are migratory, so they're only here in the spring and summer and fall and then when cold weather comes they wisely fly to the sunny south."

A fungus that originated in Europe where the bats have immunity to it was transported here resulting in White Nose disease. Ford says the kill was rapid. To the point that in some species Virginia's bat population is down 90 to 99%.

"The little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat were something that if we went out in the summertime with our students and set up nets over a creek or pond to catch bats we literally would catch dozens of those two species on any given night in any place in Virginia. Now, we can go days and weeks without ever either catching one or recording the echo location pulses of those bats they've been so decimated by that disease agent."

Ford says farther north in New England those two species are now extinct and in Virginia there seems to be no waning of the disease and those species, along with a couple of others, could make it to the federal endangered species list.

With bat populations so reduced one wonders what the impact on the environment is or will be.

"We estimate that the mortality of white nose is over seven million bats … we're probably looking at nine or 10 million little brown bats and that have been removed from the landscape. What that means in terms of controlling forests pests… you know, these bats eat the moths that eat the foliage or attack oak trees and ash trees and things like that. We have no idea."

A great concern of white nose disease is if it continues to move west. While the bats in the US agricultural zones from Texas west are a different species than those in the east, scientists don't yet know how white nose disease will affect them, if it is does: "It would be an unmitigated disaster for agriculture … they save the agriculture industry hundreds of millions of dollars every year in terms of insect control on pests that prey on corn and cotton.”

Ford says it will probably be decades before it is known how the bats to our west will--if they do--survive the disease.

Researchers have been working for years to find a cure but so far it has been elusive.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about bats. Many people are wrongly terrified of bats. They're actually quite amazing creatures. They're quite adaptable, quite intelligent, they're long lived. Band recoveries of little brown bats indicate that some bats live as long as 30 years. They rarely fly into your hair, they're a mammal so they don't lay eggs, there are no vampire bats north of central Mexico."

Ford says our greatest fear should not be of bats but of losing them.