University City

Once 'creepy,' bats now facing their own scare

This month, when people dig out their Halloween decorations, chances are something in their collection will have a swooping, creepy bat on it.

But now the nocturnal mammals, long used as a spooky detail this time of year, are facing a fright of their own.

A mysterious disease called White-Nose Syndrome is creeping across the country, changing the role of bats from minor characters that exude fear to center-stage stars; this time, however, they're playing the victims.

"They have their own horror story going on now," said Lenny Lampel, Natural Resources Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Government. "They're dying off by the hundreds of thousands."

White-Nose Syndrome - named for Geomyces destructans, a white-colored fungus - started appearing in the northern part of the country in 2006. About that time, a caver near Albany, N.Y., noticed several dead bats with a white fungus coating their faces. Since then, more than a million bats have succumbed to the disease.

White-Nose Syndrome hasn't shown up in Mecklenburg County.

"It just hit North Carolina this past year. It's in the western part of the state," Lampel said. "That's as far south as it is now."

Although bat experts don't fully understand the disease, they believe spelunkers, people who explore caves as a hobby, also are behind its spread.

To slow its march across the country, bat biologists have begun to close caves to the public.

That people may be transmitting the disease to bats is a 180-degree turnaround in the relationship between the two mammals: bats have long been feared by humans as carriers of rabies.

That's been greatly exaggerated, though, said Lampel. In truth, only a half of a percent of bats actually carry the disease.

Bats have long put the scare in people. In fiction, they lurk in creaky abandoned buildings, or feast on the blood of humans.

Swooping down to catch insects, they often seem to be fluttering recklessly close.

In reality, bats are an important part of the ecosystem, reducing the world's mosquito population with their voracious appetite. One bat can eat as many as 1,600 mosquitoes in a single hour.

"Mosquitoes are the vectors for a variety of disease that really do harm people, and bats are a good, effective control for mosquitoes," said Don Seriff, Natural Resources Coordinator for the county and a colleague of Lampel. "It will be a big problem for us, I think."

Mecklenburg County hasn't conducted an official study on bats in years but has taken a basic bat inventory. Nine kinds of bats have been spotted in the county, a frequent place for bats migrating from the north to hibernate.

"We tend to see fairly good numbers coming through in mid to late October," Seriff said.

A trend both men hope will continue, despite the new threat.

"There are a lot of bat biologists pooling their efforts, trying to figure it out," said Seriff.

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