The year 2011-2012 has been declared the “Year of the Bat” by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats (EUROBATS). The Year of the Bat campaign aims to educate the public on the essential roles that bats play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem through activities such as seed dispersal, consumption of agricultural pests, and pollination services. The campaign also works to dispel myths and clarify common misunderstandings faced by one of the most persecuted and misunderstood mammals in the world.
The UNEP’s declaration of the Year of the Bat comes at a time when bats need help from humans more than ever. Bats are facing enormous population declines and many are now endangered. In some parts of the world bats are hunted in unsustainable numbers, and in other areas wind-turbines are negatively impacting migratory bat populations, killing an estimated 33,000 to 111,000 annually. In addition, since 2006, millions of bats have died from White-nose Syndrome (WNS), which has spread across the United States and into Canada. WNS is caused by a fungus (Geomyces destructans) that causes bats to awaken early from hibernation. Affected bats quickly use up stored fat reserves needed to get through the winter months, and typically freeze or starve to death when they are unable to locate food mid-winter. Nine species in 21 U.S. states and 4 Canadian provinces have been documented with WNS. In recent news, WNS was detected in a hibernating big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) at the Maquoketa Caves State Park in Iowa. In May 2012, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed the presence of WNS in a federally listed endangered species. The fungus was confirmed in the gray bat (Myotis grisecens) in 2 Tennessee counties. This announcement marks the first time that WNS has been confirmed in a federally endangered species.
Another effort to educate the public about the world’s only flying mammal is the 16th annual International Bat Night, organized by EUROBATS. Events will take place on August 25-26, 2012, in more than 30 countries. In the United States, New Jersey will host a benefit to save bats called Batstock. The 3-day Batstock will feature music, movies, live-bat presentations, and an evening bat-walk.
While bats are often in the news as being carriers of diseases such as influenza, Hendra, Lyssavirus, and rabies, it is important to remember the benefits that bats provide as well. For example, a new drug synthesized from vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) saliva may greatly improve treatment of stroke victims. Bats are also vital to the ecosystem and the global economy. Insectivorous bats can consume more than 1,000 insects in just one hour. The Mexican free-tail bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) found throughout the US and Mexico aids the agricultural industry by consuming vast quantities of the damaging corn earworm moth, which causes an estimated $1 billion US dollars of crop damage per year. As pollinators of countless plant species, nectar-feeding bats are critical to many plants of great economic and ecological value such as agave found in US deserts, cashews, figs, peaches, and dates. Bats are also important seed dispersers, as fruit-eating bats scatter far more seeds across large open spaces than birds and primates, for example. It is estimated that up to 95 percent of new forest growth is from seeds dropped by bats.
It has been shown that increased numbers of disease events associated with bats often occur due to ecological factors such as deforestation, hunting, and loss of habitat- all events that stress bats, and in some instances increase viral shedding. Instead of protecting bat populations, humans are engaging in hunting and commercial logging activities that contribute to changing bat population dynamics.
Over 1,200 species of bats exist worldwide, helping to maintain biodiversity and replenish eco-systems. However, over one-fifth of the world’s only flying mammals are now threatened; it has become more important than ever to educate people about these magnificent creatures and to correct misconceptions that have created a negative image of bats.