TOWNSEND — Endangered bats.
These useful, compact creatures just might send you running for the nearest tennis racket. The stuff of many a horror movie, these guys can give you the creepy-crawlies; spreaders of rabies, zooming through the dark with no cute feathers.
Bats have a bad rap, according to biologist Tom French. “In North America, the general public does not have a soft, fuzzy feeling in their hearts for bats,” he said. But European bats do not carry rabies and are considered to be cute, the associate director of Mass Wildlife told the Friends of Willard Brook during a talk at the Townsend Library.
Even North American bats are not a large danger to people. In spite of general fears, only one human dies every 2 1/2 years from bat-transmitted rabies.
In reality, the flying beasts are an important part of our ecosystem. By consuming huge quantities of insects they have a useful niche. Savvy homeowners install bat houses around their property to entice the hungry predators to stick around the neighborhood.
Now, domestic bats face a huge danger. A fungus commonly found in European caves has attacked native cave-dwelling bats. White-nose syndrome is wreaking havoc with the local bat population, according to French. The fungus is visible as white areas on the nose and wings of the animals.
The syndrome was identified in New York four years ago and already has decimated the affected bat population. “It virtually wipes them out,” French said.
Fewer than 20 bats now inhabit a cave that once held 10,000. “This is not a happy story,” he said.
The fungus does not cause the bats to die; the side effects are what prove to be fatal. “The main thing it’s doing is keeping them awake. The cause of death is starvation,” French said.
“They use up their winter fat stores way too fast,” he said. Hungry bats leave the caves on warm winter days in search of non-existent insects.
Bats are very sensitive to cold temperatures and die if caught outside in below-freezing temperatures. Others never leave the cave and starve to death, unable to get outside to attempt the hunt.
Bats affected by white nose syndrome are found dead outside the cave. Other predators like ravens, fishers and raccoons have discovered the food source. The only sign of the dead bats might be the “whitewash” by the feeding animals on stones by the cave opening.
It is likely unwary visitors from European caves likely brought the invasive fungus to the United States. Now the bats carry the fungus. It thrives in cold, wet soil, a perfect description of the caves and mines sheltering bats in winter. “I think our only hope right now is our bats, that do have some level of immunity, will carry that immunity into their offspring,” French said. “What we’re most worried about is it will carry some species away.”
The future is grim for the cave-dwellers. “We are totally helpless to do anything.”
Fungal creams and ointments have not stopped the spread. Wildlife rehabilitators have heated the fungus to kill it, but it returns in the winter. Even if a solution is found, it will take decades for the population to recover.
The bats living in your attic are not in danger . “It only affects the ones that hibernate in caves and mines,” French said.