Alabama bat population declining due to disease

Specialists handling bats

A disease that began ten years ago in New York is now in 30 states in the U.S., including Alabama. White Nose Syndrome is killing bats, which are critical to our way of life. Right now, a group of researchers gathering for three days at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve is examining local bats to determine how the disease is affecting them.

Alabama has 15 species of bats. Researchers at Ruffner are on day one of their project this year, and say so far the findings are mortifying.

"It's devastating for us bat lovers to know a few years ago we caught 300 in the area, and this year we caught just 50," says Wildlife Educator Vicky Beckham Smith.

The rapid decrease in America's bat population is devastating to researchers with a distinct appreciation for the mammals, but it's also bad news for the general public. Bats help control the insect population. Without bats, who can eat 1/3 of their weight in bugs just overnight, our yards, homes, and crops would be crawling with pests.

"A lot of farmers are actually putting up bat houses to attract bats to their areas."

That creates a natural and highly effective pest control, allowing farmers to avoid chemical pesticides on crops raised for human consumption. Using bats also saves farmers money.

"It's billions of dollars that they save."

But, over the past ten years there has been an 80 to 90 percent drop in certain bat species.

"Which pretty much annihilate the bats in certain areas," says Jamie Nobles, Ruffner Conservation Director.

White Nose Syndrome is a white fungus that infects the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bats. It's transmitted by humans, animals, and other bats carrying spores from place to place. Right now, anti-fungal solutions can treat infected bats that are found and helped. But, it does not prevent the disease from attacking in the first place. This creates a dire need for a dwindling group that does not regrow its population very quickly. Reproduction for bats is very limited. They have just one pup her year.

Right now, a group of researchers at the University of Georgia could have an answer to the problem. It turns out the solution they originally created to prevent fungus in bananas, has been shown to effectively battle White Nose Syndrome in bats. More research is needed.

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