Tuesday, February 22, 2011

bat crash

Last December, an article appeared in National Geographic about the white-nose fungus that is causing massive, frightening die-offs in bat colonies around North America. The fungus has been on the radar of bat enthusiasts for a few years now - everyone in Chautauqua was watching for it in 2008 - so it's not breaking news. (In fact, the PA Game Comission's map on this website indicates that it had already reached Buffalo by the end of 2010, so Chautauqua can't be far behind.)

This article comes at a scary time for people paying attention to animals around the world, especially in the wake of the catastrophic oil disaster in the Gulf. It's even easier to sensationalize every ecological hiccup in the wake of a string of ill-timed (and highly publicized) animal die-offs in the winter of 2010-2011. Yet, it's pretty clear that the fungus is not normal, and it's spreading fast. At this point it's more a question of when the fungus will reach every bat in America, not if. And with many species already critically endangered, and all bats responsible for a lot of pollinating and insect control, the impact could truly be devastating on not just our food supply, but ecological systems across the continent.

I did some poking around to see how much more we'd figured out since the article was published. I'll admit I didn't go digging in library archives - just the internet - but it seems to me that not too much has changed. We're still waiting on evidence, I guess. I read a botanist's website that pointed out that we still don't have absolute scientific proof that the fungus is the actual cause of death. At best, at this point it's assumed to be an indirect cause. Scientists are still not absolutely sure - "scientific proof" speaking - that the fungus is what's disrupting hibernation and causing the snowballing of fat loss, metabolism disruption, and wing damage that is probably leading to mid-winter deaths. Right now, it's a probable guess.

I got to thinking about what it means to have scientific certainty about anything. The amount of irrefutable evidence required, the countless hours spent by lab workers, PhD candidates, scholars, etc. in search of the truth. The enormous amount of effort building skyscrapers of scientific knowledge, brick by brick, that can be dismantled by a public that is ill-informed, uninterested, or driven by fear.

Science, as illuminating as it is, is sometimes like a laser pointer seeking out a fish in the ocean. As much as we're able to discover with our advanced methods of seeing, sensing, and analyzing the word, a big part of me worries that the research won't ever keep up with the rate at which we're changing the planet. I wonder if we will find the truth quickly enough.

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