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White-nose disease a serious problem for bats -- how can kids help?

Close-up of a large cluster of hibernating little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) before the onset of white-nose syndrome.
[Photo credit: Ryan Smith, Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife]

The little brown myotis, which was once one of most common bat species in North America, may be extinct in the northeastern United States within the next 16 to 20 years or so, due to a disease called White-Nose Syndrome, according to a study in the 6 August issue of the journal Science.

One of the reasons scientists are concerned about White Nose Syndrome is because bats are important to many ecosystems. A single bat can eat its own weight in insects each night. This is roughly like a 75-pound kid eating 300 quarter-pound hamburgers each day!

Globally, bats help keep ecosystems healthy by reducing insect populations, including bugs that damage garden and agricultural crops, forest trees, and sometimes even transmit diseases to humans.

First discovered in New York State, White-Nose Syndrome is spreading rapidly across eastern North America and currently affects seven bat species. It gets its name from the white fungus that grows on the nose, wings and ears of bats, and the infection makes bats unusually restless over winter, when they should be hibernating.

A cluster of three little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) infected with WNS at Graphite Mine in New York. Characteristic white fungal growth is visible on forearm, ears and nose areas.
[Photo credit: Alan C. Hicks]

The bats thus use up their fat reserves, and 73 percent of animals, on average, in a hibernating colony, perish from the disease annually.

Scientists are still trying to find solutions to the problem of White-Nose Syndrome, but recognizing and talking about the importance of protecting and conserving bat populations is one way kids can help.

Another way to help is to build and install bat houses in your back yard or as school projects. Bats that survive White-Nose Syndrome may need smaller spaces to raise their babies in the summer. Scientists are trying to find out whether smaller bat houses will help bats that may be resistant the disease survive and reproduce to keep the species from going extinct. To learn how to build and install a bat house and for more information about helping protect bats, the study authors suggest visiting Bat Conservation International at www.batcon.org.

Winifred Frick of Boston University and the University of California Santa Cruz and her colleagues analyzed population data collected over the last 30 years, from 22 caves and other hibernating sites, in five states throughout the northeastern United States. By combining these data with population models, the researchers determined that there is a 99 percent chance of regional extinction of little brown myotis within the next 20 years if the disease continues to spread the way it is now. They say that several other bat species may also face a similar risk.

Some other cool facts about bats are that baby bats, also called pups, often weigh 25 percent of their mother's weight when they are born. This would be equivalent to a 100 pound human woman giving birth to a 25 pound baby. Most human babies only weigh about 6 or 7 pounds at birth, so bat pups are really very large at birth. Also, did you know that mother bats nurse their babies until they are almost adult size? This would be equivalent to your mother nursing you until you were a teenager. Dr. Frick suggests sharing these interesting facts with your friends and telling others how important it is to protect bats and the areas where they make their homes.