What’s Killing The Bats?

Posted by: Loren Coleman on March 27th, 2008

According to a new article, “Biologists seek clues as bats die off,” by John Richardson, in the Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine, March 27, 2008, a mystery exists due to thousands of deaths this winter throughout the Northeast.


These little brown bats, a species common to Maine, show symptoms of white-nose syndrome – rings of white fungus around the noses of hibernating bats. Courtesy New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Something is killing bats as they hibernate in parts of the Northeast, and biologists in Maine and other states are worried about what it could mean for natural systems that rely on the nocturnal predators.

Tens of thousands of bats have died in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, apparently because of some mystery disease or change in the environment that has left them starving and dehydrated.

In some cases, bats have flown out of caves in the daylight before falling onto the snow and dying.

The phenomenon has been called white-nose syndrome because afflicted bats have rings of fungus around their noses.

“It’s something new to science, and it seems to be spreading at an alarming rate,” said Eric Hynes, staff naturalist for Maine Audubon. “It’s pretty devastating (and) it’s pretty scary.”

The die-off has not yet shown up in Maine, although finding the evidence would be more difficult here than in other states.

While bats do hibernate in Maine, the state has no expansive bat caves, called hibernacula, where thousands of the flying mammals gather for the winter slumber, said Walter Jakubas, the top mammal scientist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Hibernating bats in Maine are more spread out, often sleeping in small caves or the crevices of rocks and trees.

“We’re very concerned about it,” Jakubas said.

“The disease is going to have a much better chance, we think, of spreading among the animals that are packed closely together.”

But, Jakubas said, “we still don’t have a good idea of what we’re dealing with.”

It’s unknown whether the culprit is a disease that spreads from one animal to another or an environmental factor that is simply being discovered in more places as scientists look for it.

The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife does not have a bat specialist because of budget cuts, but it will look for signs of the syndrome during wildlife habitat surveys this summer, Jakubas said.

David Yates, a research biologist and bat specialist with the BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, visited one of two known bat hibernacula in the Rumford area last month.

He found 110 bats in an old mine on the side of White Cap mountain, and all appeared healthy, Yates said.

But Yates, who studies bats throughout the Northeast, is worried by the rapid spread. “The biggest reason for concern right now is, we don’t really know anything about it,” he said.

Many of Maine’s bats migrate out of the state for the winter and return in the spring, when there are insects to eat.

The syndrome is affecting several species of bats, including little brown and northern long-eared bats, two common varieties in Maine.

The big brown bat, another Maine resident, does not appear to be affected.

Federal, state and university biologists are studying dead bats in laboratories around the region but have no answers yet, said Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service based in Boston.

Weaver said scientists who visit caves are finding thousands of dead bats, and other bats that are behaving abnormally and dying.

“We’re still seeing bats flying around when they shouldn’t be flying – in the daylight and in the cold weather,” Weaver said.

A video posted on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Web page shows afflicted bats flying in daylight around a Massachusetts neighborhood and falling on the snow.

Once a cause is found, figuring out what to do about the die-off may be a more difficult challenge, experts said.

The syndrome first showed up last winter in New York, but appears much more widespread this year.

“Last year, 9,000 to 10,000 died, and I think it’s going to be in the hundreds of thousands this year,” said John Whitaker, professor and director of the Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation at Indiana State University.

The center is raising money – $22,000 so far – to help find the cause and respond to it.

Bats may not generate much public sympathy, but they should, according to Whitaker.

“Bats are almost entirely beneficial,” he said. “They eat lots of insects.”

Bats regulate the populations of insects such as mosquitoes that carry diseases, as well as pests that damage agricultural crops and other trees and plants, biologists said.

“Bats are a major component of the ecosystem, and without them and the way they keep a check on insect populations, that would have a profound impact on vegetation,” Hynes said.

In Maine, for example, there could be more gypsy moths if there are fewer bats to eat the moths, he said.

The bat syndrome is in some ways similar to other unexplained die-offs – such as a collapse of honeybee colonies in the past two years – that remain mysteries, Whitaker said.

“It’s time to really wonder what’s going on in the environment,” he said.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

11 Responses to “What’s Killing The Bats?”

  1. Tegan responds:

    First the bees, now the bats? What’s happening to our ecosystem?!??

  2. red_pill_junkie responds:

    I share your fears completely Tegan 🙁

  3. Spinach Village responds:

    I seen This story on Charlie rose… very disturbing

    Its an Uphill battle if it has anything to do with us humans (pesticides etc.) especially with Bush still in office

    good point referring to the Honey Bee’s also… maybe it is related

  4. DarthBadger responds:

    As Tegan says, first the bees and now the bats!
    What will be next?
    And can we really do something to prevent all this?

  5. ETxArtist responds:

    Thanks for the heads-up. We have a lot of these little guys around here where I live, and it’s great fun watching them fly around in the evening, chowing down on our skeeters. They’re amazing!

  6. gkingdano responds:

    We need to find the cause AND a cure. Most people don’t know how much $$$$ bats save the environment and farmers and grocery store buyers by eaten thousands of TONS of crop destroying insects EVERY night without one drop of chemical poison. Just check any of the bat conservation sites!!

  7. wrath of the real responds:

    Hmmm……Armageddon? All winged creatures will fall…. bees, bats, and birds? Don’t forget about our bird flu. Great we broke the planet….Bigfoot is going to be pissed!

  8. sschaper responds:

    Well, the honeybee thing turned out to be no mystery, or anything truly exceptional. Just as the thing with the amphibians turned out to be natural.

    I don’t know what is happening to the bats, though the fungus is obviously inolved. Bats are mammals and are carriers of rabies. They eat mosquitoes which carry many things, including West Nile, which is relatively new, and can infect mammals. There are several new viral diseases in America due to immigration and airline travel, including norovirus, cryptosporidium, and others. Concievably they are being hit by one of those. Tick populations are way up in areas where their numbers had been lowered substantially due to agriculture, the north-east is one of the areas that is being reforested to a level not seen since settlement, and the undergrowth isn’t being burned out by the natives the way it was before the Pilgrims. “Winter ticks” are killing off deer, due to the feedback between the huge increase in deer and mouse populations, leading to more ticks, leading to more ticks infecting more deer at higher levels. I suspect that bats can be affected by ticks and by lyme disease as well.

    It has been an exceptionally cold and snowy winter, but we’ve had those before in previous centuries, and while we didn’t take inventories of bats in the 1800s, they did survive it.

    I’m not aware of any new pesticides being broadcast in the past 7 years.

    We definitely need to find out what is wrong, because the bats are so important to the environment.

  9. Maine Crypto responds:

    Something is changing, that’s for sure! I just hope that it is not too late for us to do anything about it!

  10. cryptidsrus responds:

    Ditto to the all of what the other posters here said. Distressing and worrisome.

  11. ninetailedfox responds:

    Humans have destroyed the environment, mother nature wants her creatures off the planet. People didnt pay any attention when cars gave off emissions, people didnt pay attention when cement plants gave off cancer, by the time they listen, the damage is already done and most of the animals are dead. When animals die, you can bet humans are not far behind.

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