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Why Should We Care About a Bat Disease?

This is one of several great songs from Midnight Oil's environmentalist-oriented album "Earth and Sun and Moon." (I wanted to post the title track, but I couldn't find it online.)

I am going to take a little risk in this post. I, a history teacher, am going to talk a bit about science. And not only that, I am going to discuss a topic that I knew virtually nothing about until yesterday: bats. Last night, we went with the kids on a “bat walk.” It turns out that the sister of one of our friends is a well-known local bat expert, and she was putting on a presentation at a nature preserve down in Irvine. After her slide show that contained remarkable pictures showing the huge variety of bats in the world, we went on a walk carrying little sensors that could pick up the sound waves being put out by the bats as they were hunting for insects. You would hear this rapid clicking noise, and then, sure enough, a bat would quickly shoot by. It was pretty cool, and the kids had fun carrying little counters and clicking them in order to keep track of the number of bats that they saw.

There was one part of the slide show, however, that was disturbing. (Those who have disaster fatigue beware.) As we speak, an ecological disaster is taking place that is decimating the bat populations of the eastern United States and parts of Canada. A mysterious disease named “White Nose Syndrome” is killing bats at an alarming rate, virtually wiping out entire colonies and threatening the continued existence of certain species. I found four facts particularly disturbing: we do not currently understand what causes the disease; the disease is spreading rapidly, with a case recently turning up in Oklahoma; most Americans – like myself until yesterday - have ever heard of this disaster; and few resources are being spent on attempting to understand and contain this plague.

Here is a (somewhat out-of-date) video describing the disease. You can find other, longer videos on “YouTube.” (Just type in “White Nose Syndrome Bats.”)

If you are not a bat enthusiast or devoted environmentalist, then you might be wondering why you should care. It’s pretty simple really. Bats, like bees – another creature suffering from a mysterious drop in population – perform some very important functions. Bats that eat insects play a vital rule in keeping bug populations down. And when you consider the fact that some bat colonies number in the millions – there is a colony in Texas of 20 million - and that bats can eat more than their body weight in a single day, it is difficult to comprehend the jump in insect populations that will occur if bats nationwide are wiped out. This jump will represent more than a nuisance. Farmers in some regions are going to be facing a pest infestation nightmare, and all of us may be suffering someday in the form of higher food prices and an environment laced with even more potentially dangerous pesticides. We might also suffer if mosquitoes, one of the most effective spreaders of disease, get out of control as well.

Some bats, however, are not insect-eaters. There are many species of fruit-eating bats, and there are others that are mammalian versions of hummingbirds, sucking pollen out of flowers. And in the course of flying around and eating fruit and pollen, these bats play a vital role in either fertilizing flowers – like big bees – or pooping out the seeds of the fruits that they have consumed. Without bats, naturally growing species of numerous plants will also be decimated. This is why it is vital to try and stop the potential spread of this plague into the American southwest and the South American rainforests, areas heavily populated by bats that consume pollen and/or fruit.

Often, many Americans see the goals of economic growth and environmental protection as contradictory. You have to choose one or the other, and industrial development, by its nature, will sometimes have negative environmental effects. Others are starting to realize that “going green” may be more than just vital for survival. It can also be profitable. There is no direct evidence at this moment that humans have played any part in creating “White Nose Syndrome.” This disaster clearly shows, however, the connection between environmental degradation and potential economic catastrophe. At first glance, a bunch of dead bats seems like no big deal. But when you start to see the interconnections between different aspects of our ecosystem, you see how events in the natural world can come back to bite us (like a vampire bat, the mammalian version of a mosquito).

In the modern world, there is a tendency to think that we have conquered nature. Modern developments in transportation, housing, energy production, communication, agriculture, and medicine often make it seem like we are masters of our universe. Many of us have little or no personal connection to the natural world on a daily basis because we are shielded by our technology. Every now and then, however, Mother Nature reminds us that she can kick our ass. Usually this realization comes in the form of something big like a hurricane, earthquake, flood, or tsunami. Out of necessity, we then pour in resources to deal with the catastrophe. But what happens when a disaster is hidden from view and creeps up on us more gradually? Unfortunately, when we don’t experience a big shock to the system, there is a tendency to blow problems off. After spending paltry sums over the past few years trying to understand and possibly contain this bat plague, Congress has currently set aside nothing for this coming year. If this problem concerns you, it may not be a bad idea to do some research and contact your local Congressperson.

Like it or not, we humans are not masters of the ecosystem. We are part of it. And if we just stand by and watch nature go to hell, we may someday face some serious (and possibly unforeseen) consequences. Of course, some might see the rapid extinction of bats as just one more development in the process of evolution. Species rise and fall, and life goes on. Of course, if the natural world that we have grown accustomed to rapidly changes, we might also go down with the ship. We will then be just one more species swept aside in the evolutionary process of “survival of the fittest.”


  1. I particularly relate here to the first sentence of the last paragraph, "Like it or not, we humans are not masters of the ecosystem. We are part of it".

    While I must agree that saving such species ultimately will give us a more consistently stable future here on Earth, I must say that this goes against the above statement. And in a good way.
    Surely we must strive to be the 'masters' of our ecosystem in order to construct it to our own futures needs. If we don't, or choose not to, then our future is indeed, quite bleak.

    Eventually, one or more, or all species will die out. Either dying out completely or being surpassed by superiors within their chain, as is the theory of Darwinian-ism or by simply falling victim to a planet-wide sterilisation which naturally occurs every several hundred million years - or so (please don't quote me on that figure). Secondary to that, is the nature of the too-many-to-count impending doomsday scenario's that we keep hearing about, one of which will certainly occur and give us zero warning.
    Hence the true nature of our own powers over the planet we exist on.

    Sure, we can save this species and that species by making this change or that. My point (or question) however is thus; Will our efforts made in futility?

    As a race of beings, I believe that one day (possibly thousands of years in the future, or merely a decades...) we will have a desperate need to leave this planet and seek new resources and minerals elsewhere in the Galaxy.
    With this in mind - will we be classed as 'selfish' for leaving all other species behind to face whatever doom awaits them?
    Will we need to take them with us to aid us in the same way that they aid us here, in terms as you've suggested above, or would we want to start 'afresh' by adapting to whatever conditions await us on our new home?

    Don't get me wrong here, I actually agree that something needs to be done. My real question is, exactly what can be done to prevent the current eco system from undergoing any further changes? The simple answer is, nothing. Mother Earth has her orders and she will follow them, and I think the only thing we can do, is to slow down the process so that we have a little more time to make plans.
    Truth be told, where ever we lay our hat, we will always encounter problems of all kinds. Particularly the way that we like to kill the minerals and fuels here, an action that will only lead us further into failure anywhere else that we happen upon.

    Thanks for the discussion Paul :)

  2. Good point regarding how I sort of contradict myself here. Sometimes we must recognize the fact that certain things are out of our hands.

    I was trying to explain why we should care about bats. Sometimes environmentalists are perceived as being impractical. They want to save species just for the sake of saving them. So I was trying to show that seemingly irrelevant changes to the natural world can actually affect us.

  3. A grave concern, ecological instability is at our doorsteps and still we are mostly talking like old senators of Rome, doing nothing else. And regarding your statement that we should not try to be the masters of nature, and seeing the response from Buick, I have to say just one thing.

    "Don't try to be the father of your mother !"
    Nature has given us, and the power to take it back any moments vests in her own hands. All we can do is to understand her in a better way and make efforts to preserve her youth. Otherwise she knows how to take control. Every mother does.

    A beautiful post indeed, and hey, it doesn't matter if you are a history teacher and its science. Its everybody's concern and I think science people should start airing their voices and also start doing something (Not that nothings being done now)

    Blasphemous Aesthete

  4. Great topic! Since we do not know the cause, we cannot really have the discussion as to whether we are powerless against nature in this situation.


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