I’ve been following the bat die-off in the Northeast US this winter — first in New York state, then in MA, then in VT, and now in CT. The scientists studying the 80-90% fatality rate in affected “hiberniums” (read: caves and abandoned mines) are desperately searching for understanding of what has been coined “White Nose Syndrome (WNS),” after a symptom of these starving, dehydrated, dying bats flying out into the winter daylight, certain to die.
And now, it’s showing up in Connecticut.
From the Litchfield County Times:
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first announced the presence in Connecticut of bats affected with WNS last Friday and the second location was discovered Tuesday….
“The presence of WNS could have a major impact on biodiversity in Connecticut, and we are taking this discovery very seriously,” she continued. “Bats are our single largest predator of night flying insects and provide an important form of natural insect control. Any significant depletion in their numbers will also result in a significant effect in other parts of our ecosystem.”
Dr. R. Laurence Davis, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of New Haven, explained further. “Bats will eat 4,000 to 7,000 mosquitoes each night, per bat. Those mosquitoes won’t be eaten if the bats die. Mosquitoes have a major impact on the environment, carrying diseases such as West Nile Fever. Bats also eat moths — you could say that’s just a few more moths around the light at night, but adult moths make baby moths and those are caterpillars that defoliate things. We have the potential for — I am trying not to use the word ‘disaster’….’
“Typically, they have only one pup a year,” the professor said, “It’s not like it’s a population of mice that crashed, where they have three and four litters a year — you would have mice again in a hurry — but bats are going to take a long time to come back. Normally, you would expect bats from other colonies to come in and scarf up the bugs — no food source goes wasted — but with 80 to 90 percent of the New York bats dying off, you are beginning to test the limits of bat migration.”
The reason for the die-off — which may be wiping out the majority of bats in these states — is still unknown. They’ve found no specific virus, bacteria, or other pathogen to explain it — and the “white nose” fungus seems a symptom, not a cause.
Dr. Davis said that there is little data available on bats, which is making it difficult for scientists to determine cause and effect. “They don’t normally do bat surveys every year in every cave,” he said, “mainly because when you go in, you wake them up and they burn up fat with nothing to eat. This syndrome could have started earlier than two years ago — we just don’t know. The real problem is there are no in-depth studies of bat biology. There are several labs working as hard as they can and they find parasites, they find bacteria on the fur or skin — but no one knows if this is normal because there is no data on a healthy population. We haven’t found any toxins; we haven’t found any smoking gun. Everything is so inter-connected. There are so many different elements that could be attributed to something else. No one knows for sure.”
My own armchair theorizing leads me to conclude that it has more to do with pesticide-resistent (but still sick) insects being eaten by the “prime predator” of the air. These resistent bugs have been sprayed with pesticides in apple orchards, croplands, and elsewhere. The bats then are poisoned, sickened, and their hibernation disturbed by these now-flushed toxins.
But then, I’m just watching from the sidelines, worried. I’m not an expert in this field.
The Lakota tribe has a saying that’s part of sweatlodge rituals: “O mitak uyasin,” which translates loosely to “all are my relatives.” It’s used to remind that someone else’s troubles are also mine; that we are all connected, inextricably, and are all — humans, animals, plants, soil — related.
In the bat die-off we see another example of what we’re doing to the natural world, to our relatives. Scoffers might say “there’s no proof that we are the cause of this problem” — just like they say there’s no “proof” that climate chaos is a humanly-generated problem. It seems better than likely, if not obvious.
We are all related. Our world is in trouble. We are doing damage of unspeakable magnitude in ways both hidden and evident. We are thoughtlessly presuming that if we can do it, it’s ok to do, regardless of the impacts on other living creatures.
The bats are an example of what I’m seeing as a frightening trend (viz. the bee colony collapse, the bird collapses, the amphibian collapse) — generalized species collapse, leading to newly chaotic, unbalanced ecosystems. It will likely be very depressing, on many levels — financial, psychological, systemic.
O mitak uyasin. All beings are my relatives. When my relatives are sick, so am I.