Bats, America's most precious bat resource, have been dying like crazy over the past few years (a devastating 5.5 million in the Eastern U.S. since 2007) thanks to something called White-Nose Syndrome, which is not a euphemism for cocaine addiction but, oh boy, does it sound like it.
Here's what we know so far about the devil's dust killing our insect-eating friends:
- The "white nose" of the name refers to the white powdery growth that coats a bat's muzzle and wings once it is infected with the fungus Geomyces destructans. As if being covered in this stuff weren't awful enough, the fungus eats away at bats' skin, chewing through the membranes of their wings, tails and ears.
- White-nose syndrome makes bats tweak out in completely irrational ways. For instance, they begin flying around outside in the middle of the day in the dead of winter, when all good little Stellalunas are tucked home safe in their caves, hibernating.
- While so one is sure what, ultimately, is killing the bats, NPR spoke to a couple scientists whose guesses sound a lot like the famous celebrity illness, "exhaustion."
They may be using up their winter fat reserves too soon and starving to death; bats that go out in the daytime make easy pickings for predators; they might be dying from the cold. And since bats regulate water loss through their wings, the flesh-eating fungus could cause deadly dehydration.
- A Canadian researcher who studied infected bats suggested to the New York Times that the fungus might cause the animals to develop an irrepressible urge to groom themselves. "Do I look fat?" the bats ask. "How's my hair?" "I don't look fat, right?" "Check my hair." "Let me check my hair." "Gotta check my hair." "How's my face?" "Face looks good?" "Face good?" "How's the hair?" "Let me check my face."
- The epidemic has begun spreading west, just in time for Coachella. Missouri recently confirmed three cases—the first instances documented west of the Mississippi.
- And, of course, this nose-candy poison ripping apart our vampire families was introduced by some spelunking European partyboy. The Times explains:
The study also strongly suggested that the fungus comes from Europe, making it an invasive species, and was likely introduced accidentally by somebody who had recently traveled to a European cave.
Worst of all, at the moment there doesn't seem to be anything humans can do, apart from not touching bats with our grubby, fungus-dusted human hands.
As a representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put it:
"We are basically monitoring and watching one of the greatest population declines through disease that's ever been recorded for a mammal species, and that is certainly of concern, to put it mildly."
RIP, fallen bats. We will never forget the beautiful children's books you brought to the world.
[Image courtesy of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, via AP]