Frogs, Bees, Bats are all in desperate trouble and scientists are scrambling to find out why, so far to little avail.
Could there be a connection between the diseases that seem to be rapidly killing off the animals we depend on to pollinate our foods and protect us from insect invasions?
Since 2006, the little brown bat has been reduced from a population of about 60 million to just 60,000 in NY State. This most common bat, as well as bats that were already endangered, needs emergency national action to save it from extinction.
Last week, the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a long awaited national management plan to address the threat posed to bat populations by White Nose Syndrome.
White Nose Syndrome
White Nose Syndrome was first detected in brown bats in upstate New York. Since then, the fungus has decimated its population throughout NY and has moved into 18 states and four Canadian provinces. It typically kills 70-90% of the bats in a colony; sometimes mortality rates reach 100%.
Bats affected by the fungus have a “white nose.” During the winter, they wake up prematurely from hibernation, and can be seen flying erratically outside caves desperately seeking food. Since there are few insects around in the winter, they exhaust their fat reserves and die from starvation or the cold.
In NY, biologists have found evidence of the fungus in all corners of the state and in each of the 32 hibernation caves they checked, according to last week’s survey by the NY State Dept of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC).
The Graphite Mine in the Adirondacks, for example, once New York’s largest bat hibernation site, now has just 2000 bats, down from 185,000. Another bat species in the mine, the tri-colored bat, is down to a single bat.
Management Plan Inadequate
A recent scientific paper on bats’ economic value to agriculture estimates that bats’ nontoxic pest-control services range from $3.7 billion to $53 billion a year.
The Department of Interior (DOI) says the plan provides for a coordinated national management strategy for investigating the cause of the syndrome and finding a means to prevent the spread of the disease. DOI says it has invested over $10.8 million since 2007, including $3 million in research funding.
Researchers working with the U.S. Geological Survey have identified Geomyces destructans – a fungus new to science – as the presumed causative agent.
Researchers have also developed decontamination protocols to reduce transmission of the fungus, which spreads from bat to bat, surveillance strategies, and White Nose Syndrome diagnostic procedures.
The seven elements of the national plan are:
B. Data and Technical Information Management
D. Disease Management
E. Epidemiological and Ecological Research
F. Disease Surveillance
G. Conservation and Recovery
Unfortunately, it lacks specific guidance on how state and federal agencies should respond to the unprecedented wildlife crisis, and it doesn’t provide any estimate on the amount of money or staff that will be needed, says the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been pushing for a plan since the problem started.
Last year, the Center petitioned federal land managers to block nonessential human access to caves and abandoned mines across the lower 48 states in the hopes of stemming the spread of the disease.
The fungus spreads from bat to bat, but scientists also believe it can spread on shoes, clothes and climbing equipment when people go from one cave to another. While there have been widespread cave closures in eastern states, land managers in the West have yet to take similar, large-scale steps.
The Center has also called for dramatic increases in federal funding to research the cause of, and possible cures for, the disease; it has petitioned the government to provide federal protections for some of the most vulnerable bat species.
Connection With Bees, Frogs
White Nose Syndrome in bats is all too similar to that of colony collapse disorder in bees – the mysterious malady that causes honeybees to inexplicably flee their hives.
And the first report of White Nose Syndrome came in late 2006 and early 2007, around the same time the world was learning about colony collapse disorder.
Beekeepers have bemoaned the slow pace of research and government action to find out and hopefully stop the cause of colony collapse disorder.
Frogs are suffering from a similarly mysterious fungus that is working its way across the world. And scientists have struggled to find enough money to study it and hold out little hope of slowing its spread.
The fact that entire categories of organisms are suffering precipitous decline – all bees, bats and frogs – is disturbing, indeed.
Read the Bats National Plan: