The stuff of bat nightmares

bats with nose fungus

Those aren't milk mustaches.

You'd think this would be a good time of year for local bats. Fat and happy from eating insects all summer, they're ready to settle down for their long winter's nap.

But hibernation's gotten a little spooky for bats around the Capital Region.

A few years ago in Howes Cave, scientists noticed a strange white fungus growing around the mouths of bats there. The identity of that fungus -- and why it was there -- was a mystery. But researchers quickly noticed the fungus seemed to be linked to big die-offs in the local bat population. In one site, Schoharie Caverns, 97 percent of the bats died. Scientists say the bat population there might be gone for good.

This mystery fungus has now been observed in caves around the Northeast -- and it appears that Albany County is the epicenter of the epidemic.

So, what's going on? No one's sure, exactly. But in a paper released by the uber-journal Science today, researchers from the NY DEC, DOH and a bunch of other institutions report that they've gotten a better handle on what sort of fungus they're dealing with. And, in a twist out of some winter horror movie, the fungus thrives in the cold. The researchers also found that the fungus invades the bats' skin, infecting their wings (as you can imagine, wings are pretty important to a bat). While they can't say for certain that's what's killing the bats, the paper's lead author says it looks like a likely culprit.

Bats don't really have the best reputation with the general public, but they're actually very important to ecosystems. They vacuum up insects during the summer, providing a check on mosquito populations. In fact, a single bat can eat as many as 3000 mosquitoes in a single night.

photo: Nancy Heaslip, NY DEC


NPR's Living On Earth did a story about this on their most recent show. Very sad...

I understand (as your article points out) that bats are important. And my higher self understands this is a problem and we all should be concerned. But they are pretty much flying rats, and I end up with PTSD every time I see one. So, if they are on the decline, my gut reaction is to not cry for them, Argentina.

I think I'm more a fan of bats than I am mosquitoes (having never been bitten by the former) so if they want to sleep in my building where it's warm until summer - I'm down with that. Just, you know, not in my bedroom.

I think bats are kinda cute. One got caught in my school a few years back and people sort of freaked out. While trying to catch it, more so it wouldn't hurt itself as it was flying into walls, I got up close and personal with it. It was kinda adorable.

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