A neighbor spotted some photos of tarantulas and hummingbirds in the last issue of Smithsonian magazine and passed in on to me, but a surprise waited for me within. I stumbled upon another article about white-nose fungus:
What is killing the bats?
It's not too long of an article, but worth reading, since it describes some of the specific ways scientists are trying to study the fungus: how to detect it, how it spreads, how exactly it affects bats. Opinions still seem divided over whether the most deadly symptoms are the weakening of wing membranes, the awakening of bats from hibernation, or some other irritation caused by the fungus.* The longer there is a lack of consensus on what exactly the fungus does, the longer it will take us to develop the most effective way to treat sick bats and stop it from spreading further.
I admit that I fear it could be too late already. This really disheartens me. These scientists are working around the clock to stay ahead of what is becoming a pandemic in the U.S. and their efforts don't seem to be working. White nose is still spreading faster than we can understand it or even track it. Even if we get that far, we're probably looking at losing the majority of the country's bat population, and, as the article states, it will take generations for the population to rebound. And it will come at a high price: a certain rise in the populations of mosquitoes and other insect pests, and thusly a rise in both mosquito-borne disease and crop failures.
I try to take solace in the words of Brooke Slack, one of the biologists studying the bats: "There's a sense of helplessness, [b]ut I don't feel like we can say, 'Well, we've got it, so we give up.' We've got an obligation to move forward."
I'm really excited about my upcoming bat piece - not just from the perspective of working for the first time on a large-scale installation, but also because I want other people to know what is happening too. I think it can seem like a niche issue (as in, Save the spotted two-toed purple hyrax!) but what we are really talking about is our food supply, our protection against disease, and preserving an incredibly important group of animals that occupies a key role in many ecological systems in America. And I really think this message can be spread without the finger-wagging and shaming that sometimes accompanies the most academic or sanctimonious environmental art.
* 9/25/11 A brief update on this - I've since read that starvation from waking up during the winter and irritation of the membrane seem to both be contributing to bat deaths. Better news (maybe) is that the fungus can be killed with fluconazole, which is commonly prescribed for human fungal infections. This of course raises concerns about what else we might accidentally kill if we start pumping aerated anti-fungals into caves, but it's a start. And the scientists are not giving up!