White-nose syndrome


White-nose Syndrome from Gerrit Vyn on Vimeo.

A biologist friend sent me the link to this slide presentation on white-nose syndrome last night, but it took me until this afternoon to muster the strength to watch it. I think the fact that it’s still images — and very fine photos at that — actually makes it harder-hitting than if it were a true video. While I’ve never agreed with the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, pictures plus spoken words make for a very potent combination. It’s not the information per se, most of which I’d already known, but had been managing to keep on a somewhat abstract level.

Bats play a pivotal role in eastern forest ecosystems because they consume a very large quantity of insects. What effect will their disappearance have on forest trees — or on crops, for that matter? But more than that, it’s terrible to be losing these creatures which are wondrous and beautiful and important for their own sake. I hate to always talk about extirpation or extinction in terms of the effects on us and other species, as if that’s the main reason why it matters, though it’s an ecological truism that, as John Muir put it, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” And bats on summer evenings are woven inextricably into some of my fondest memories of childhood.

There’s no obvious, conclusive lesson here, not yet, though I’ve heard suggestions that the white nose fungus might be native to Europe, and might have been brought here accidentally by cavers. There doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it, though obviously biologists are rushing to learn all they can in hopes of preventing its spread, or at least helping to save remnant populations of the affected species. Congress recently approved $1.9 million to study white-nose syndrome, and you can keep up with other developments in this story at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website. There’s a form there that you can use to report unusual bat behavior or deaths if you live in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Hampshire or Vermont. You could also join Bat Conservation International, the world’s leading scientific advocacy organization for bats.

I am keeping my fingers crossed that the epidemic won’t effect some of the more solitary, forest-dwelling species, and will be limited to those who spend the winter in large hibernacula, but that’s probably wishful thinking. I’m not really sure why I’m sharing all this. You’re either going to shrug, if you’re not much of a nature lover, or, like me, become uselessly distraught. I don’t have the words to express how this makes me feel. After watching the above presentation, I proceeded to burn dinner — something I haven’t done in years, if ever — and break a favorite casserole lid. “This is not my day,” I said by way of lame explanation. But for the bats, this is evidently not their century.

Posted in
Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

18 Comments


  1. I had not grasped the truly nightmarish aspect of this. That they flee the caves and huddle with the dead, then to die too–what a horror story. It’s like the chytrid fungus killing the frogs, but faster, and harder to take, perhaps, because they’re mammals.

    Everyone should see this presentation. Thanks for posting it.

    Reply

    1. You’re right, it’s a lot like the chytrid fungus — hadn’t thought of that comparison.

      Whatever the individual causes of these catastrophes, it seems that the natural world is growing impoverished now at an accelerating rate — and if you look at how little wild habitat is left, how fragmented it’s become, and how freakin’ numerous we’ve become, it’s pretty much exactly as one would expect.

      Reply

  2. Read Dianne Ackerman on bats. She has at least one amazing essay on them. Part of me dies with them.

    Reply

    1. I’ll keep an eye out for it. Everything Ackerman writes is amazing, but sometimes I find her overwhelming.

      Reply

  3. Thanks for this, Dave, hard as it is to watch. I’ve put it off all day.

    Little brown bat.

    Reply

  4. How could you have seen a casserole, given those retinal-burn images? The bat seeking to huddle with its already-frozen fellows in the rock crevice — might as well be my screensaver right now.

    I sometimes list the extirpations alphabetically (bats, bees, bears – polar, frogs), and wonder if we are properly ordered as homo or dumbshit.

    I was a BCI contributor for years: time to re-up. Thanks for this.

    Reply

    1. Glad I prompted you to renew.

      I guess one of my main motivations in occasionally sharing despair-inducing stories like this, aside from their inherent importance, is so people will understand that the dark tone often present in my writing is not an affectation.

      Reply

  5. “Uselessly distraught” is about the size of it. This disease is gut wrenching, and you’re right about the video bringing it home in new and terrible ways. It can’t hurt to spread the word, though – you never know when someone might have a flash of genius that will help even a bat or two. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply

    1. That’s true. More knowledge is always good, even if it hurts.

      Reply

  6. I thought of the similarities with chytrid fungus too, yes uselessly distraught is how I feel about this type of thing…

    Reply

    1. And not just that, but all the new diseases and pests that are wiping out species of trees here in the eastern U.S., too. The butternut, for example, an obscure walnut species: the last speciment on our mountain was in my front yard, and just toppled one calm autumn morning seven years ago. In that case, the loss of a single charismatic individual symbolized the species’ mysterious blight-caused extirpation throughout much of its range.

      Reply

  7. Dave, thank you for reporting on things that really matter.

    Reply

  8. It’s good to have someone like you who breaks crockery over bats. When I break crockery and burn things it’s always to do with human affairs.

    Reply

    1. Well, it’s always possible that my unusual ineptness last night was for unrelated reasons. I don’t know.

      Reply

  9. Well, there are also people in your audience, (one at least) who care about nature but don’t think about it much, just because there’s so much else to think about. For us this sort of thing is neither to shrug about nor just the daily news from Hell. You and Chris Clarke are my main news sources for this kind of thing, you know.

    Reply

    1. Well, I don’t think of a guy who goes on solo treks into the wilderness as being exactly biophilia-deprived. There are some people who seem unable to perceive non-human nature as having any intrinsic value at all — that’s what I was getting at, there. “Nature lover” probably isn’t the best term for what I’d like to think is the normal, default setting for most human beings.

      Reply

Leave a Reply