A fungus plaguing North American bats could soon make its way to Iowa. This fungal infection, known as the “white-nose syndrome” (WNS), first forms on bats’ faces and wings during hibernation, and causes them to break hibernation prematurely. Once awoken, it’s not long before the sickly mammals are found dead. Eighteen states, along with areas of Canada, have confirmed cases of WNS. The projected spread of the fungus indicates that WNS could soon hit Iowa. Suspected cases have already been found in Missouri, including near the Missouri-Iowa border. As ugaresearch reports, the rapid spread of the fungus and its fatal nature have caused considerable anxiety among wildlife pathologists:
The syndrome has so far been confirmed in nine bat species, including two (the Indiana and the gray bat) that are already endangered. The mortality rate in some colonies has been greater that 90 percent – [wildlife pathologist Kevin] Keel calls WNS “ the most devastating infectious wildlife disease we’ve ever seen.” And because many bats produce only one “pup” a year, scientists now fear that several once-common species may suffer a major population collapse that could wipe them out entirely in some regions.
A decline in bat population will also hurt America economically, especially in the agricultural sector.
A new analysis, published in the April 1, 2011, issue of Science, estimated the value of bats’ pest-control services in the United States alone at more than $3.7 billion a year. The report also warned that the United States will see “noticeable economic losses in the next four to five years as a result of WNS and other emerging threats to bat populations.”
In addition to eating millions of insects, bats also disperse seeds and pollinate some important agricultural crops, including bananas, vanilla beans, peaches, and avocados. Their waste, called guano, provides vital nutrients in cave habitats. And composted guano is a powerful organic fertilizer.