Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bat holocaust

Bats are dying.

We used to have a large population of bats in the Northeast; but they're all dying off.  In earlier years, we would sit on my deck and watch dozens of bats come out at dusk to catch insects over the Sparkill pond; now, if we see one or two bats, it's a big deal.

What's killing them is a fungus that causes their noses to turn white. It may look cute, when you see it in the above photograph; but it spells nearly certain death for the bats.

The fungus causing this is unpleasantly resilient; and the story is, unfortunately, a perfect subject for this blog, since it involves a hitherto unknown microorganism which emerged from nowhere to destroy an entire population of creatures which are, in their own small right, essential for the ecosystem we inhabit.

It would be one thing if something of this kind took place once in a while; but it is happening everywhere, all the time. This snapshot is a microcosm of the phenomenon taking place all over the world, as organisms are introduced to microbiota they never involved with and were rarely, if ever, exposed to. The blending of invasive species on the macrobiotic scale is what concerns us; yet it is the microbiological blending of species that is wreaking havoc in the natural world.

Another example of this is that the moose population in Northern America is dying off. Human beings love to refer to macro events as causing such problems; but it's likely we are going to trace it to a microbe of some kind or another. Perhaps more alarmingly, outbreaks of novel  and extremely deadly diseases like MERS-CoV— which, in a topical consistency, often turn out to have their origins in bat populations — are also turning up.

Taken individually, the cases seem unique, and we don't think much about them; but taken together, the indications are that we are seeing massive migrations of microbes out of old areas and into new ones. We only notice the immediate effects, which are unique; microbes and viruses that cause instantly visible results of one kind or another are going to be the rarity. What is taking place over the long-term is much more disturbing, because the subtle changes being worked on the ecosystems around us will be long-lasting, and, from the point of view of human lifespans, for all intents and purposes, permanent. Eventually, one of these changes will result in a major problem for human population somewhere; and by the time that's recognized, it will be too late to do anything about it.

 I'm sure readers are wondering what, if anything, can be done about this. The difficulty, perhaps, is that little can be done. We can, however, reduce the overall impact we are having a microbe populations by trying to limit the amount of alien chemistry we dump into the environment. Healthy local microbial populations are generally better able to resist the invasion of foreign ones. This principle is consistent across the spectrum of size and biology. It is, almost certainly, the overall weakening of local microbe populations that is rendering them so vulnerable to the invasion of new ones.

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