It's coming up on Halloween, so let's talk about bats. There's bats in your hair, bats in your belfry, vampire bats - but the most frightening image is the one held by the bats themselves. Since 2006, over 1 million bats have succumbed to white-nose syndrome: a fungal infection that leaves a fuzzy white patch on the bat's nose but also eats away at their skin and wings. It also disrupts the bat's winter hibernation, causing the bat to expend needed energy to get through the winter months; and with reduced levels of bugs in the winter, many bats starve to death.
The white-nose syndrome has worked its way through many eastern states in the U.S., north and south, being transmitted from bat to bat but also from human contact via recreational cave explorers' footwear, clothing, and gear. However, states are trying to get a handle on the situation and the state of Tennessee has come up with a novel method.
When you think of the state in the U.S. with the most caves, what comes to mind? New Mexico, perhaps, because of the stalactite and stalagmite spires of Carlsbad Caverns. Well, as it turns out, it's Tennessee and they have a vested interest in keeping their cave-dwelling bat population healthy as a means of controlling the bug population, particularly during the warm summer months.
The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee in conjunction with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Bat Conservation International, have proposed building an artificial cave, one that is disinfected with anti-fungal medication. Bats will frequently change locations, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that bats would move into the artificial cave, get a dose of medicine lining the walls, and then ultimately move on, leaving the cave for the next group of bats. Over time, it is hoped this would begin to stem the tide of the spread of white-nose syndrome.
The Chattanooga-based website, Nooga.com, quoted Cory Holliday, program director for The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, as saying, “The fungus is really susceptible to a lot of things, such as heat and anti-fungal agents, but you can’t do what needs to be done in a natural cave setting because it would destroy other cave life forms, as well,” says Holliday. “This artificial cave is a pilot project, but if it works we are hopeful that we can build a lot of these things.”
The organizations involved are continuing to pull together the $300,000 needed to build this pilot project but they hope to begin construction soon, even before it is fully funded, as they see the situation as being a most dire and immediate threat.
According to Nooga.com, "Bats rank among our country’s most endangered wildlife, with seven in danger of becoming extinct in the United States alone. Their populations are declining as a result of habitat destruction (deforestation, cave flooding, vandalism, commercialization of caves), cave exploration disturbances, pesticide use, and 'pest control' efforts. Bats also collide with wind-energy turbines; bat fatalities have been documented at nearly every wind facility in North America."
So, bats have enough problems to deal with; no need to add a fatal fungus to the list. It has been estimated that the bats' ability to act as a flying pest-control service - pests that would devour agriculture - saves the U.S. agricultural industry as much $3.7 billion to as much as $53 billion annually. That's billion with a "B".
Cory Holliday said, “I do have hope for the bats; however, it is very distressing to go to white-nose syndrome sites and see bats that are dead or bats missing from caves where they should be. At the same time, it also drives me come up with strategies to solve this problem.”
This Halloween, the bats deserve all the treats - with no tricks - that they can handle.
To learn more about bats, check out Bat Conservation International.
To learn more about the proposed Tennessee artificial bat cave, visit The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee.