|Little brown bats hibernate in a cave in Tennessee. Amy Smotherman Burgess/ZUMAPRESS|
But actually, these maligned creatures are crucial to many ecosystems—and our economy. What's more, they're in trouble. A few important facts to know about our winged, insect-munching friends:
|Bats flying at sunset Umkehrer/Shutterstock|
A few years later, Josiah Maine, then a graduate student at Southern Illinois University's Cooperative Wildlife Research lab, decided to test out those estimateson the most important American crop: corn. Maine's team set up enclosures around corn fields that let in insects but prevented bats from entering and foraging, and then measured how that corn fared compared with corn in fields where bats could eat insects to their hearts' desire—and found 50 percent more fungal growth and crop damage in the enclosed corn. They then estimated the cost of damage per acre and extrapolated it across all the acres of corn grown in the world. The total price tag? More than $1 billion per year, not including the cost of downstream environmental damage caused by increased pesticide use.
|Long-eared bats eat insects that damage crops. De Meester/ZUMAPRESS|
Without bats, there would be no tequila. Many species of bats pollinate plants. After they use their insanely long tongues to feast on the sweet nectar of flowers, pollen collects on their muzzles, which they spread from the male part of the flower to the female part of the flower.
Bats help save forests. Fruit-eating bats also play a crucial role in rejuvenating clear-cut rainforests. After a rainforest ecosystem is decimated, the first step toward rebuilding is the spreading of seeds by the poop of fruit-eating birds, bats, and other animals. But bats, which cover large distances to forage for fruit at night, do the best job at spreading "pioneer" plants, the flora that first begin to grow after clear cutting.
In North America, bats are in big trouble. Bats are dying in unprecedented numbers in the eastern United States and Canada, thanks to a terrifying fungal disease. Nearly 6 millions bats have perished in the past decade, including more than 90 percent of the populations of some species.
Perhaps most frightening of all, the disease has spread very quickly: Since 2006 when wildlife biologists first identified it in New York, it has appeared in 26 states and five Canadian provinces. (Although in some of those states the effects have yet to be seen; bats don't start dying until a year or more after the fungus arrives in their caves.) Within the next decade or so, white-nose syndrome is expected to reach states as far west as Wyoming.* White-nose syndrome has affected half of the 47 bat species in the United States, including the once ubiquitous little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat, which is now a threatened species.
|A little brown bat affected by white-nose syndrome US Fish and Wildlife Service|
|Scientists test the wings of a little brown bat for white-nose syndrome in Tennessee. Amy Smotherman Burgess/ZUMAPRESS|
Researchers are also looking into more dramatic ways to fight the disease, including innovative vaccination efforts and cutting-edge biological control methods that manipulate the microbes on a bat's skin so its microbiome develops a resistance to the pathogen. Researchers have found that bats' immune systems, which largely shut down during hibernation, do not notice to the invasion of Pd fungus, allowing the pathogen to easily out-compete the microbes on bats' skin that normally fight off germs. Scientists are trying to introduce new organisms to bats' microbiome that could resist the fungus.
|Because of white-nose syndrome, the northern long-eared bat is now a threatened species. Bruno Manunza/ZUMAPRESS|
Luckily, the US government has also stepped in. At the end of last month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was giving another $2.5 million in grants for white-nose syndrome research. Since 2008, the agency has donated nearly $24 million to federal, state, and nongovernmental organizations to study and prevent the disease.
Researchers like Blehert and Maine also hope the new findings showing bats' economic value will encourage support from spheres outside of wildlife conservation. "It's not only ethical, but there is an economic incentive [to conserve bats] too," Maine told me. "For a lot of people, this [latter] argument is really persuasive."