Bats - one of the center stage players during Halloween - is a much maligned creature of the night.
Did you know that bats don't attack people - nor do they do not get tangled in people's hair and even true vampire bats are not true vampires.
Bats live on all continents except Antarctica, are essential members of many types of ecosystems - from rain forests to deserts. Bats pollinate and disperse the seeds of hundred of species of plants and are the major pollinators of many types of cacti that open their flowers only at night - when bats are active. They also eat copious quantities of insects and other arthropods. On a typical night, a bat consumes the equivalent of its own body weight.
Bats are very nimble flyers because of the dexterity of their wings, which, unlike insect and bird wings, are structured to fold during flight, very similar to the way we fold our hands. Bat wings are draped with skin that stretches and are powered by special muscles.
The importance of bats as part of our world compounds the tragic dimensions of an almost always fatal epidemic in bats: White-nose Syndrome.
Named for a cold-loving white fungus that is typically found on the faces and wings of infected bats, White-nose Syndrome causes bats to awaken more often during hibernation and use up the stored fat reserves that they need to get them through the winter. Infected bats often emerge too soon from hibernation and can be seen flying around in midwinter. These bats usually freeze or starve to death and is almost always fatal.
White-nose Syndrome has killed more than 5.7 million bats since it was discovered in a single New York cave in February 2006. Seven bat species in 23 United States and 5 Canadian provinces have now been documented with White-nose Syndrome.
Close to home, White-nose syndrome has been detected in two Minnesota state parks.
The disease is transmitted primarily from bat to bat, inadvertently fungal spores are carried into caves by humans on clothing and caving gear. The syndrome is not known to be a threat to humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.
While only a few of the bats in the Minnesota state parks have tested positive for the fungus, if Minnesota follows the trends of other states, the disease is likely to be present in Minnesota bats within two to three years.
Mortality rates approaching 100% are reported at some sites. White-nose Syndrome threatens some of the largest hibernation caves of the endangered Indiana myotis, gray myotis, and Virginia big-eared bats. Ultimately, all bats across North America are at imminent risk.
What is being done?
In 2009 and 2010, a team of federal and state agencies prepared a White-nose Syndrome management plan to address the threat to hibernating bats. In Tennessee, a state of 10,000 caves and 16 species of bats including the winter home to 270,000 gray bats, a very special project is underway.