Bats: Worse Than Decimated

The recently publicized and now second-year bat disorder being called “white nose syndrome” has been found in Connecticut, a new state added to the list. But then, neither the bats or the purported agent of disease can see the artificial state lines on the ground.

I’ve seen over and over again the comparison of WNS to CCD and this could be misleading.

State biologists announced on Friday they have found bats afflicted with a fungus called “white-nose syndrome” hibernating in unnamed locations in northern Litchfield County near the Massachusetts border. The fungus is similar to a mysterious illness that has decimated the honey bee population.

The two conditions are “similar” in that they both involve large numbers of individual animal deaths, are new disorders to us, and their causes remain a mystery. To imply that they have “similar” etiologies is way premature and given the different lifestyles and the distance between the mammalian bat and the arthropod bee, the cause–should we ever have a definitive answer–might be entirely different. Or both may be related to pesticides, cell phones, sun spots, climate change or some other common factor. We are embarrassingly ignorant at this point.

Here again (I’ve seen it reproduced ad nauseum in copy-cat reposts on this topic) bee and bat populations are said to be “decimated”. Not. I understand the author’s intent but would quibble with the chosen verb. In fact, bat populations are showing something like 90% declines. Many bee colonies are obliterated entirely.

Deci-mated. The word comes from the Latin based on the root word for TEN–as in decimal or decade. As I have heard it, it is a military term from the time of the Roman armies. A general considered his losses unsustainable if his troops had been “decimated” with a ten percent loss in a particular battle.

There’s a good bit of difference between the General’s 10% and the bats’ 90%. There, I feel better.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. According to my dictionary, the one out of every ten definition is “historical” and the current definition is much stronger:

    1 kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of : the project would decimate the fragile wetland wilderness | the American chestnut, a species decimated by blight.
    – drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something) : plant viruses that can decimate yields.
    2 historical kill one in every ten of (a group of soldiers or others) as a punishment for the whole group.

  2. Granted of course, but we’ve run roughshod over a perfectly good and precise word and upped the ante many fold–probably out of ignorance of the original meaning–to make it do more work than it was designed to do. It does SOUND worse than 10%. Hmmm. Wonder if there is any cross-pollination between “decimate” and destroy, destruction, those kind of roots that bear a common sounding prefix.

  3. Up here In Vermont and over in up state N.Y. there has been news of the bat die off all winter. I just read somewhere that it has showed up in Maine also.