The Least of These

The white-nosed bats and the honey bees.

That both these earth-economy essential creatures should be threatened in a serious way should be improbable details you’d come across only in dystopian fiction.

The storyline of such a novel is predicated on the large consequences that derive from the disappearances (only a highly creative imagination could come up with a plausible cause) of the smallest and most peripheral of creatures. It would be a morality tale of arrogant, world-ravaging civilizations being brought to their knees by what would turn out to be their weakest, and in the end, most essential links.

But I digress. I only wanted to give a few details from the 39th Annual Mt Rogers Naturalist Rally Friday evening program by Dr. Karen Frankl, who is a bat biologist from Radford U.

There are some 1000 bat species world-wide. Of those, 17 are found in Virginia, 14 are resident species here. Of those about half are cave and half are tree species. It is the cave species that suffer from White Nose Syndrome.

WNS first came to the headlines in 2006. I think I just saw it was now confirmed in 22 states and spreading. It probably originated in Europe, where cave bat populations are much less dense than in American caves–this possibly indicating that these are resistant survivors of a WNS epidemic there some centuries or longer ago.

Geomyces destructans is the pathological agent afflicting cave dwelling bats. It causes the bats to use up more of their fat stores during hibernation, and to venture out during winter. Both these facts may stem from the irritation the organism causes. It itches–not to mention it causes the wing membrane to lose elasticity and develop actual holes.

Bats are impacted by large-turbine windmills. But surprisingly they are not killed by direct trauma but by barotrauma. They basically “explode” due to pressure changes caused when the blades create a low pressure suction on the bats especially fragile lungs.

So, while honeybees continue to be decimated by Colony Collapse Disorder (hit harder this year than ever in many places), up to half of all North American bats could be wiped out by WNS.

And the so-what? Read Blood and Spore: How a Bat-Killing Fungus Is Threatening U.S. Agriculture (The Atlantic)

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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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