Worth Defending

© J Scott Altenbach

Virginia big-eared bat

With a flash of brown wing and laser-like accuracy, the Virginia big-eared bat nabs an insect on the fly. This voracious eater, with its distinctive big ears, will devour half its weight in bugs every night during warm weather months. Come winter hibernation, though, the bat could be in for a chilling reality. 

Already hard hit by human disturbance during hibernation, the endangered Virginia big-eared bat, which lives in parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, has long struggled to survive. Now white-nose syndrome could make matters worse. Although scientists haven’t found evidence of white-nose syndrome in Virginia big-eared bats yet, they have found the fungus in caves where the bats hibernate. It could be just a matter of time. This powerful plague already affects seven bat species and is responsible for some 5.5 million bat deaths since biologists first identified it in a New York cave in 2006. Today it is found in as many as 19 states and Canada.

Named for the powdery residue it leaves on a bat’s muzzle and wings, this fatal fungus disrupts bats during winter hibernation, causing them to fly when they would normally be inactive. With no insects to eat, afflicted bats diminish their fat reserves and starve. That leaves fewer bats around to keep bugs in balance come spring. And their services do more than keep pesky mosquitoes from our picnics.

The Forest Service estimates that the die-off from white-nose syndrome means that at least 2.4 million pounds of bugs—including major agricultural pests like gypsy moths and alfalfa weevils—will plunder our crops. And fewer bats, which now provide a nontoxic pest-control service equaling up to $53 billion a year, means farmers likely will use more pesticides.

It also means that we must find a way to help these bats win this battle—for their future and ours. 

–Julia Collins

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