(Information from Bat Conservation International, www.batcon.org )
Bats are essential to the health of our natural world. They help control insect pests and are vital pollinators and seed-dispersers for countless plants. Yet these wonderfully diverse and beneficial creatures are among the least studied and most misunderstood of animals.
Centuries of myths and misinformation still generate needless fears and threaten bats and their habitats around the world. Bat populations are declining almost everywhere, especial due to the devastating White-nose syndrome. Losing bats would have devastating consequences for natural ecosystems and human economies. Knowledge is the key.
The more than 1,200 species of bats – about one-fifth of all mammal species – are incredibly diverse. They range from the world's smallest mammal, the tiny bumblebee bat that weighs less than a penny to giant flying foxes with six-foot wingspans. Except for the most extreme desert and polar regions, bats have lived in almost every habitat on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs.
Bats are primary predators of night-flying insects, including many of the most damaging agricultural pests and others that bedevil human populations. Diverse bat populations help control agricultural pests in farmlands and orchards, vastly reducing the need for chemical pesticides. More than two-thirds of bat species hunt insects, and they have healthy appetites. A single little brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour, while a pregnant or lactating female bat typically eats the equivalent of her entire body weight in insects each night.
Almost a third of the world's bats feed on the fruit or nectar of plants. In return for their meals, these bats are vital pollinators of countless plants (many of great economic value) and essential seed dispersers with a major role in regenerating rainforests. About 1 percent of bats eat fish, mice, frogs or other small vertebrates.
Only three species, all in Latin America, are vampires. They really do feed on blood, although they lap it like kittens rather than sucking it up as horror movies suggest. Even the vampires are useful: an enzyme in their saliva is among the most potent blood-clot dissolvers known and is used to treat human stroke victims.
Even bat droppings (called guano) are valuable as a rich natural fertilizer. Guano was a major natural resource in the United States a century ago, and it's still mined commercially in many countries.
Some biologists consider bats a "keystone" component of ecosystems in parts of the tropics and deserts. Without bats' pollination and seed-dispersing services, local ecosystems could gradually collapse as plants fail to provide food and cover for wildlife species near the base of the food chain. Consider the great baobab tree of the East African savannah. It is so critical to the survival of so many wild species that it is often called the "African Tree of Life." Yet it depends almost exclusively on bats for pollination. Without bats, the Tree of Life could die out, threatening one of our planet's richest ecosystems.
All but four of the 47 bat species found in the United States and Canada feed solely on insects, including many destructive agricultural pests. The remaining species feed on nectar, pollen and the fruit of cacti and agaves and play an important role in pollination and seed dispersal in southwestern deserts.
The 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats at Bracken Cave, Texas, eat approximately 200 tons of insects nightly. A colony of 150 big brown bats, which often roost in tree cavities, can eat enough cucumber beetles each summer to eliminate up to 33 million of their rootworm larvae, a major agricultural pest. More than half of American bat species are in decline or already listed as endangered. Losses are occurring at alarming rates worldwide.
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White-nose Syndrome (WNS) has devastated bat populations across the eastern United States during the past four years, causing “the most precipitous wildlife decline in the past century in North America,” according to biologists. And this relentless disease keeps spreading into new areas. Many Federal, State agencies and NGOs are working together to understand and stop WNS and begin restoring these decimated bat populations.
Since WNS was discovered in a single New York cave in February 2006, more than a million hibernating bats of six species have been killed by the disease in 11 states and two Canadian provinces. Many of the bats afflicted with WNS are on national forests. Named for a cold-loving white fungus typically found on the faces and wings of infected bats, WNS causes bats to awaken more often during hibernation and use up the stored fat reserves that are needed to get them through the winter. Affected bats often emerge too soon from hibernation and are often seen flying around in midwinter. These bats usually freeze or starve to death.
Mortality rates approaching 100 percent are reported at some sites. WNS has now moved into Canada, Maryland, Tennessee, and Missouri. It threatens some of the largest hibernation caves for endangered Indiana myotis, gray myotis, and Virginia big-eared bats. Ultimately, bats across North America are at imminent risk.
For a brochure about White-Nose Syndrome, CLICK HERE.