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Neighbors Growing Together | May 24, 2017

Tracks and Tales: Gone Batty

By Pam Holz

My friend’s daughter acquired a black baby Guinea pig.  Somehow, the little thing reminds me of a bat without wings.  It shouldn’t.  For one, Guinea pigs are rodents, related to mice, squirrels, beavers, etc. where bats are related to… well, other bats.  Secondly, as I point out to my students, bats, particularly our bats, are not black.  
While I cannot speak for every bat species (over 900!), all the bats I have ever seen in photos or in life are never black.  Brown is the most common color, but some have been red, yellowish, gray-tipped, and, in Australia, a whitish one flittering about like a moth.  I think logically most are perceived black as we don’t see color well during the night or the dark where we tend to encounter these winged mammals.  
As a general rule, I’d say most people prefer not to run into bats, particularly when it comes to inside their house.  I can hardly disagree.  Besides the shock factor, some bats carry the rabies virus.  While infected bats make up a small percentage of the bat population, one hardly wants to play the odds with a deadly virus.  
However, beyond the home, I think more and more people are beginning to understand the crucial role of bats in nature.  All Iowa bats eat insects.  Thus, they provide millions of dollars’ worth of pest control each summer.  In other places in the world, bats are also important pollinators, distributers of fruit seeds, and their guano (or feces) has been mined for crop fertilizer.  Sadly, we have also begun realizing that we may be losing all these benefits.  
Bat populations around the world have been decreasing and rarely does science know why.  Habitat loss and disturbance at winter hibernation sites have explained part of the decline, but not all.  In the United States, scientists hadn’t made much headway when a new threat appeared.  “White Nose Syndrome” (WNS) has yet to appear in Iowa, but some forecast it’s a matter of when not if.  
WNS was named before the cause was even known.  Infected bats often have white on the nose, but could also have white on other parts of the body.  This fungal infection averages a mortality rate of 80%.  However, in some cases, entire populations have died.  Of the nine species of bats in Iowa, five are known to be susceptible.  
The fungus is new to science but could have been around for quite some time.  It is also found in Europe but so far is not harming the bats as extreme as here.   Since the fungus prefers cool environments, bats become infected during their most vulnerable time, during hibernation.  Scientists still lack an understanding of how the fungus spreads, but it may be from bat to bat and from humans transporting fungal spores from cave to cave.
Some of the things that people can do to help bats in this situation are simple as they require the lack of action.  These items include not visiting caves and other sites where bats hibernate during the winter, avoiding disturbing bats, and remaining out of closed caves and areas.  Of course, the more active ways to help include donating time and money, learning more about bats, and putting up bat houses in your yard.  
Experts estimate over 6 million bats have died from WNS since its first discovery in 2006 and that one of our most common bats (little brown bat) may become extinct as a result.  The loss of these bats meant that over 4,000 metric tons of agricultural insect pests survived that would have been consumed annually.  As an agricultural state, the loss of bats will have staggering results for our economy.  
Let us hope, then, that scientist will be able to solve this problem before it reaches Iowa.  I, for one, enjoy seeing bats flit around at dusk, eating pesky bugs in my yard.  
Don’t forget:  Marr Park’s night prairie burn is Friday, April 10.  A brief educational program will be held at the maintenance shop near the entrance at 7:30 p.m.  We will start to burn the north prairie, next to the highway, at 8:00 p.m.  Depending upon the weather, this fire can burn very quickly.
In addition, summer day camp registrations are now available.  Contact the Conservation Office for more information.