Bats, Fungus, Silver and Gold

“On that day people will throw away to the moles and to the bats their idols of silver and their idols of gold…” – Isaiah 2:20

Right now bats in America could use a little silver and gold to pay for medical research. That’s not something that you hear every day about wild animals, but then again bats are a little different than most critters. A lot of the creatures on God’s green earth can be considered kind of weird by human standards, but as a group you’d have to put bats pretty high up on that list. Many animals are nocturnal, but most of them have just developed good night vision to find their way around in low light. A bat’s echolocation is a whole ‘nother outlandish and complex way to get around in absolute total darkness. It is particularly incredible the way many bat species use it to locate and catch tiny little insects on the fly. Add to that they are the only mammals that can truly fly—and in some cases even hover—and you really have something unique. I’m generalizing about American bats, of course, and there are some differences between the couple of dozen species we have in regard to habitat preference and prey selection, but they really do all fly and echolocate, which are the really cool traits. And bats don’t just fly around being cool and amazing for our amusement, either. Like all of our native plants and animals, bats play a vital role in the overall health of their ecosystems, and their role probably benefits humans more than most critters out there. Unfortunately, we soon may find out how important that role is when they aren’t around anymore, because they are in serious trouble. Almost all of them.

But first, since the ETR is a profoundly Christian enterprise, I always try to tie in some Biblical references to these columns. So here goes: according to scripture, bats like the dark and they can fly. That’s about all the Good Book has to say about them. Actually, as a big fan of bats as well as the Bible, I’m kind of glad Isaiah and Baruch just lumped them in with other harmless creatures like moles and swallows. It could be a whole lot worse—think of the bad press the Bible has given snakes over the centuries. There are no mentions of vampires or rabies or getting tangled in your hair. All that stuff came a lot later. When Isaiah prophesied the faithful would find themselves safe on the mountains of the Lord while the heretics would end up cringing in the dark, he just uses bats as an example of the kind of critter that would be in the dark with them. No demonic imagery or anything like that, just that they hang out in the dark with the moles, and as far as I know the Israelites weren’t grossed out by moles.

The Truth about Bats

Bats have become a Halloween prop to most folks, along with witches and black cats. Mostly, of course, that’s because of the aforementioned corny old wives’ tales about their getting tangled up in your tresses, or vampire legends, or even contemporary exaggerations about rabies infections. Let’s get the silly stuff out of the way. In the 2700-some-odd years since Isaiah, bats have been fairly unpopular, mostly because they often live in caves, only come out at night, move fast and erratically, and can be a little on the ugly side. On top of all that, they also might live in your attic or church steeple and make things a little messy. Hence the common misconception that bats are basically flying rats. They just seem like they are up to no good. While superficially they are vaguely rodent-like, no doubt about it, taxonomically they are unrelated to mice or rats. Bats are their own thing. The bats of the Eastern US are pretty specialized insect eaters—they aren’t going to raid the Cheetos in your pantry, but they are going to eat their weight in bugs every night. Literally. In one summer even a moderate-sized colony of bats will eats thousands upon thousands of bugs. Just think of all that insecticide they are saving you, both in cash and environmental health. It is estimated that bats save us billions of dollars every year by eating bugs. And while it is true that dozens of wild critters living in your attic can be a little gross, they really don’t present more of a health hazard to you than squirrels or mice. They won’t nibble your snacks and spread hanta virus to your kids, they’re just going to fly outside at night and eat bugs. Wait, says you, they may not give me hanta virus but what about rabies? Well, says I, any mammal, be it squirrel, raccoon, or stray dog, can theoretically give you rabies if it bites you. It’s generally a good idea not to get bitten by any animal if you can help it. But in the United States only 1 or 2 people die each year dies from rabies according to the Center for Disease Control. Moral of that story is don’t touch any wild animals, and if for some reason you do get bitten, go to the doctor. Like most animals, bats are pretty unlikely to attack you if you mind your own beeswax. Don’t pick them up or swat at them, or really mess with them at all. Just let them do their job and catch some bugs.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to be in caves with thousands of bats roosting and hundreds of them flying around my head, and while they may come pretty close, I’ve never had one touch me on purpose. Just remember the biggest bats in the US are just a few inches and a few ounces, so you are way too big to look like a meal to them. Many bat species never get much bigger than your thumb, from head to tail. If you do have bats in your belfry just call a licensed animal removal agency to get rid of them—but make absolutely sure they just shoo them out at night and then seal up the cracks where the bats are getting in. Exclusion is the goal, not hurting the bats. They have enough problems.

White Nose Syndrome

Which brings me to something else about Isaiah’s bat comment—it implies that bats were pretty common, at least as common as moles. That isn’t true in Europe and while we still have quite a few bats in the US, that unfortunately may not be true here for much longer. In the winter of 2006, thousands of dead bats were discovered in a cave in New York state. They were flying around in sub-freezing temperatures and emaciated instead of sleeping through the winter. Many of them had an odd white patch on their noses, so the label “White Nose Syndrome” or “WNS” was given to the phenomenon. A mere seven winters later an estimated 7 million bats are dead across the Eastern US, with more cases confirmed in more states every winter. Mortality is nearly 100% in the first areas it was identified. Scientists have decided that a cold-loving fungus named Pseudogymnoascus destructans is the culprit. This newly discovered pathogen is believed to be native to Europe and accidentally transported to New York by some recreational cavers (you can call them “spelunkers” if you want to irritate them). Some folks question whether that really happened or if WNS just naturally mutated or evolved on this continent. Regardless of where it came from, biologists didn’t know it existed until 2006 and since then it has worked its way across the continent fairly quickly and killed millions of bats. If a person goes into an infected cave the fungus may hitch a ride on their clothes or flashlight and be accidentally transported to another cave, but it is probably spread by bats for the most part. Some bat species will fly hundreds of miles between summer and winter grounds and hang out with different bats (even with different bat species) in different caves all along the way. Bats are playing a huge game of telephone with a highly infectious disease – “WNS, pass it on.” Once the fungus gets on a bat and is taken to a new cave it will set up shop in the walls of the cave to infect the next bat that comes along. So far several bat species have proven susceptible to WNS, including the already endangered Indiana bat, Myotis sodalis. The Indiana’s close cousin, the Northern long-eared bat, Myotis septentrionalis, will likely be listed as endangered later this year by the US Fish and Wildlife Service entirely because of WNS (some folks question what listing this species will accomplish since there is no cure for WNS, but that is another conversation). The northern long-eared bat is one of the most common bats in the Eastern US—at least it has been. We’ll see where it stands in a few years.

Now not all bat species spend a lot of time in caves, and not all parts of a cave are cold enough for this fungus to thrive, but suffice it to say that a lot of bats are dying and a lot more will follow. Bats are not very likely to bounce back, either, because of their low replacement rate. Mamma bats usually only have one baby per year. Other critters may have large litters each year, maybe more than once so they can rebound from population crashes pretty quickly. One mouse or rat may have dozens of young each year, which is why we always seem to have plenty no matter how many times you call the exterminator. It takes a long time for bat populations to recover, one baby bat at a time.

Addressing WNS: What can be done? What can I do?

So what can be done about all this? Not much, unfortunately. The root of the problem is that the fungus infects caves, and you can’t really fumigate caves without doing a whole lot of damage to other critters and probably groundwater as well. In lab settings individual bats can be helped with fungicide or other treatments, but if they are released in the wild they can just catch WNS again. Until we figure out how to decontaminate an infected cave, WNS will kill bats. However, various and sundry laboratories are working on experimental treatments so all is not yet lost. The first thing you can do is educate yourself on the problem; a great place to start is whitenosesyndrome.org, a website developed by the USFWS and others to release current information. The Battle for the Bats video is particularly helpful if you don’t know anything about bats or WNS.

As for direct action, there are a couple of things you can do to help out some bats, at least. The first thing is to stay out of wild caves as much as possible, or at least follow the current decontamination protocol for your clothes and gear between caves. “Decontamination” sounds intimidating, but it’s really just a matter of using Lysol or 409 and hot water on your clothes, boots and flashlights. Some folks say that since bats spread WNS so much more often than people that you shouldn’t worry about this stuff, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. Second, you can create a little bat habitat in your neighborhood, even though the bats you help are probably not the same species suffering from WNS. It is pretty easy to build a bat house—all you need are a few boards, a saw, and some nails, plus a pretty good-sized tree or outbuilding to mount it on. The big “community-style” plans may be worthwhile if you are excluding a bunch of big brown bats from your attic, it’ll give them somewhere to go. You can take some political action and encourage Congress to continue funding WNS research, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service has done to the tune of $8 million so far. As always, I am a big fan of supporting your local land trust—bats need forests and streams for habitat as well as caves.

To be honest, as far as conservation issues go WNS looks pretty bleak. In my home state of Kentucky, WNS was first spotted about a year ago and this winter you can find it in just about every cave including Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest cave system in the world. In February I was in a small, little-known cave in southeastern Kentucky with some other biologists, absolutely in the middle of nowhere, and saw WNS for the first time with my own eyes. It wasn’t pleasant. There weren’t many dead bats yet, just a handful, but there were hundreds of bats covered with WNS. Just knowing that they were goners is depressing, to say the least. There are some that say this is just the natural course of things—species get diseases and they die out, that’s part of nature, it’s all God’s plan, etc. And maybe that is true in some cases…but if WNS really arrived on our shores as a result of folks hopping on a plane from Europe with contaminated gear, no matter how unknowingly, then that doesn’t strike me as too natural. I’m not saying that we should never go into caves or anything that extreme—like most field biologists, a big part of my love of nature started as a kid exploring the outdoors, including caves that I had no business going into—but I am saying that we should at least try to be careful about what we move around when we travel from place to place at 21st Century speed. We just need to think twice about what we are doing when we go to wild places. Today we import WNS that kills bats; tomorrow it may be an insect that destroys all our corn crops or a plant that poisons our livestock. In any case, I try to operate under the idea that God called bats “good” and it’s our responsibility to keep them around as long as we can, even if it means parting with a little silver and gold to clean up their noses a bit.

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