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Dying Bats Across North America Pose a Threat to Farming and the Environment

Updated: Nov 19, 2023

Disease and other factors are contributing to millions of bat deaths across the U.S., creating an ecological emergency that threatens the nation's ecosystems and agriculture.

Bats are critical to pollination, seed dispersal, and, most significantly, insect control. By consuming insects that would otherwise destroy crops, they provide a $3.7 billion annual boost to U.S. agriculture.

James Wainscoat x Unsplash

Bat populations are declining due to an incurable disease known as white-nose syndrome, as well as climate change and loss of habitat.

In less than a decade, white-nose syndrome has eliminated over 90% of northern long-eared, little brown, and tri-colored bats, according to a study published in Conservation Biology. Also endangered are the Indiana bat and big brown bat populations, and many others.

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Bats' Importance to Ecosystems and Agriculture

Crop destruction by insects leads to heavy economic losses for farmers and requires intensive use of chemical pesticides, potentially negatively impacting human health and the environment. Without effective pest control by bats, these harmful insect populations can quickly multiply.

Bats perform functions essential to our ecosystem, feeding on crop-destroying pests at night, including moths, stink bugs, corn earworms, armyworms, spotted cucumber beetles, and more.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one bat can consume tiny insects like mosquitoes at a rate of 600-1,000 per hour; a nursing mother bat, as many as 4,000 per hour.

Many bat species feed on fruit and nectar and are essential for seed dispersal and for pollinating plants like peaches, cloves, bananas, and agaves.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, fruit bats also may be responsible for up to 95% of seed dispersal, spurring early growth in newly cleared rainforests.

Maksim Shutov x Unsplash

White-Nose Syndrome: Primary Cause of Bat Deaths in North America

The leading cause of bat deaths, white-nose syndrome, is caused by an invasive, cold-loving fungus. The fungus creates fuzzy spots and skin lesions on bats' muzzles and wings when they hibernate.

This condition disrupts hibernation, causing bats to resume outdoor activity prematurely, at a time when temperatures are still too cold for insect life. Unable to find food, affected bats deplete their stored fat reserves too soon and then experience dehydration and starvation.

There is no cure for white-nose syndrome, which has killed over 8 million bats in North America since 2006 and is present in bats across 35 states and seven Canadian provinces.

"The severity of the impact of this disease on bat populations is staggering," said Winifred Frick, chief scientist of Bat Conservation International. "We found that nine out of 10 bats of the most vulnerable species are now gone."

The North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat) estimates that 81 of North America's 154 known bat types "are at risk of severe population decline" in the next 15 years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is leading the country's response to white-nose syndrome, including coordinating state, federal, tribal, conservationist, and other partners, advancing disease research, and identifying new approaches.

In addition, NABat has worked toward continent-wide monitoring of white-nose syndrome and other threats to bats since 2015.

Georgy Trofimov x Unsplash

Other Factors Causing bat deaths

Besides white-nose syndrome, climate change also confuses the cycles during which bats and insects emerge. Most species of bats feed on specific categories of insects and rely on that food supply to be steady and consistent.

However, climate shifts affect where and when certain insects emerge, making it more difficult for bats to find reliable nutrition.

Yet another factor in declining bat populations is the destruction of bat habitats, often caused by logging and mining operations and land development.

Conservation groups are working on protective measures, such as installing bat houses in parks and neighborhoods to give bats a safe place to roost and raise their young.

Bat-friendly land-use practices, such as reducing pesticide use and protecting old-growth forests, also aim to preserve safe habitats for bats.


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