Saving Bats from Extinction — One Banana at a Time

During winter a little under ten years ago, in four separate areas of New York, scientists noticed something odd about an alarming number of hibernating bats. The nocturnal creatures were taking daytime flights, and huddling up near the brightly-lit entrance to their caves. Then they started turning up dead. Hundreds at first, soon thousands and quickly into the millions – growing to almost 6 million in less than a decade and jumping to over 25 states in the process. This has been what the Smithsonian calls, “…the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in living memory.”

When scientists looked closely at the oddly-acting bats, they discovered what appeared to be white spots on the nose and other hairless parts on the bodies. It was a fungus, often not seen with the naked eye, lightly covering their faces and wings. It was named White-nose Syndrome (WNS).

What is White-nose Syndrome?

Simply put, it’s a never before identified fungus that grows and thrives in cool, humid conditions. The kind of conditions very often found in caves. It goes after the bats when they’re hibernating, causing them to wake up from what scientists believe is the “itch and scratch” hypothesis. This results in them depleting their winter fat stores faster, effectively starving them to death. It also eats away at their wings, turning them into something resembling crumpled tissue paper.

Suddenly all hands were on deck, both bat control experts and scientists working side by side to figure out how far it reached and raced to discover a cause – and more importantly – a cure.

Have we found a cure for WNS?

The short answer is: no. But with a breakthrough discovery by a graduate student at Georgia State, we have a way to treat the fungus. This is an important distinction, because while we now are able to treat individual bats, there are several shortcomings.

First, it requires we catch each bat and treat it – an arduous task, at best. Second, it only treats the fungus, not eliminating the source of the fungus. Because each cave has its own diverse, delicate ecosystem, we still have yet to figure out how to eliminate the fungus in the caves without upsetting the balance.

But are these creatures really worth all the trouble? These nasty guys get a bad rap – and sometimes for good reason – but besides being gross, what would it matter if they were all gone?

Why should we save the bats?

As rodent control experts, we know just how frustrating and dangerous bats can be in a person’s home. But we also know just how important they are to our ecosystem. Not only do they consume a mass amount of insects, but particularly pests that often damage our crops. They also help pollinate many fruits that you enjoy every day. Bats are considered one of the main contributors to the continual growth of rainforests across the world. Because of all the ways they impact our environment, they’re labeled one of the “keystone” species that help prevent ecosystem collapse.

So they’re completely worth the effort in finding a treatment, and eventually a cure.

So how do we treat them?

Bananas. Yep, that fruit you take with you to work, school and tastes great with some ice cream. More specifically, it’s the bacteria researchers used to help prevent decay in fruit that is shipped long distance.

Called Rhodococcus rhodochrous, it emits a bacteria called VOCs that prevent fungus from growing and multiplying, and researchers were playing around with it to prevent bananas in particular from ripening and decaying. A bright student got the idea that if it can be so impactful on bananas, why can’t the bacteria help the bats?

And it has. The first batch of 75 bats to be treated with the VOCs survived hibernation in a wild cave and were tested last May. They were WNS-free. And while we have a long way until a final cure is created, we are one step closer to saving an integral part of our diverse ecosystem.

So next time you think you have bats in the attic, give the bat control experts at Modern Pest a call. We focus on trapping and removing the rodents so we don’t harm them in the process. Because bats belong in the wild – not in your home.