The Tragedy of the Bat

By David L. Brown

01_fungusbatBats have always gotten a bum rap. These furry little flying creatures have been associated with vampires, witches and ghouls for generations, and they’re the first to be blamed for rabies and other diseases. In fact, nearly all bats are harmless and do much good for humanity. The only exception is the vampire bat of Central and South America, a blood sucking species. Most bats are either insectivores or fruit-eaters, and the North American varieties are generally good neighbors, not fearsome monstrosities as many people imagine.

Now, bats are in trouble. So-called white nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that grows a white coating on the muzzles of bats and results in their death. It’s spreading from the Northeastern U.S., where it was first noticed near Albany, NY, in 2006. So far, the little brown bat has been the major victim of the widening plague, but other species also seem to be at risk. The photo at left shows an infected bat with the fungus in evidence not only on its muzzle but on its wings and ears as well.

According to an article in New Scientist magazine, the suspect in the disease is the fungus itself, Geomyces destructans, although scientists speculate that it may be a secondary opportunity infection riding piggy-back on some other disease pathogen.

Unlike many if not most people, I have a warm place in my heart for bats, which I have often observed in their busy evening task of swooping up millions of mosquitoes. Back in my youth I belonged to the University of Missouri campus spelunking club. (That’s a fancy name for cave exploring.) We used to crawl, wade, raft, or rappel into holes in the ground as a form of weekend sport, but also for science because we searched out and mapped caves in the limestone-rich region of central Missouri.

I have two personal anecdotes to report relative to bats. First is a memory of a late afternoon when I emerged after a lone venture into a  cave that was host to a large colony of bats. As I walked toward the oval opening, facing west across a small valley, sunset was fading and twilight was descending. The bats were beginning to stir, and soon I was standing in the mouth of the cave in the midst of a stream of bats leaving for the evening. Hundreds of them were swooping and dodging around me, a virtual river of bats, as I stood with my hands stretched overhead.

Yes, I realize that for some of you this would have been a nightmare scenario, but to me it was a marvelous experience of nature. The bats, of course, have built-in sonar navigation systems that would make a submariner jealous. They would never hit someone, any more than they collide with each other or run into the sides of their cave. The sonar is so good they can zero in on insects as tiny as gnats and mosquitoes, which are their foods of choice.

The second anecdote is a sad one. We once owned a house in Prescott, Arizona, in the high Ponderosa pine country. It featured a deck with a western view, and my wife and I enjoyed sitting there at dusk watching the bats swoop and dodge, catching the mosquitoes that would otherwise be feasting on us. The little colony of bats had found a home beneath the roof eaves of our house, and we were glad to have them there.

After a few years we moved away, but kept the house and rented it out. It wasn’t long before I got a call from the rental agent. The new tenants had complained that the house was “infested with bats,” and were insisting that an exterminator be hired to eliminate them. “Infested!” I cried. “Those are our bats!” I asked him to explain to the tenants, but nevertheless the ignorant fools insisted that the bats be killed. To this day I hope they were eaten alive by mosquitoes every time they tried to enjoy the deck. Disgusted, when the tenant’s lease ran out we insisted that they leave (they didn’t want to, but life is sometimes cruel) and sold the house. I still have bittersweet memories of those bats and their evening acrobatics.

Anyway, there’s my little collection of bat stories. They are often maligned, feared, and murdered for no good reason. In reality, they are an important part of the natural cycle of nature, helping to control those flying insects that, ironically, do suck our blood.

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