For a few weeks each October, bats emerge from the recesses of America’s cultural attic. Known mostly — if at all — from fleeting twilight glimpses, spared crumbs of the attention given to birds, bats become seasonal guests of honor: sewn to costumes, printed on cards and symbolizing, even at this late commercial date, Halloween’s pre-industrial soul.
In some parts of the world, however, there may soon be more plastic bats than real ones. A disease called White Nose Syndrome, first detected just four years ago in a single upstate New York cave, has killed ninety-six percent of that state’s cave-dwelling bats. It’s already spread to thirteen more states and two Canadian provinces. At least one million bats have died.
Some researchers put the toll far higher, but even a low figure represents an animal killing unprecedented in recorded history. For the little brown bat — the most common bat in the United States — complete eastern extinction is possible in the next twenty years. That may be equally likely for the five other species afflicted so far, including two — the endangered Indiana bat and gray bat — that live only in eastern U.S. caves, and would become completely extinct.
Biologists hope some individuals may prove resistant, but it won’t matter if remnant populations are so small as to make eradication as inevitable as the next lean season. And so it’s now possible, in large swaths of the United States, to contemplate something utterly unthinkable just five years ago: what would it mean to live without bats?
The most obvious impacts would be agricultural. Most bats, including those now threatened, eat insects. It’s impossible to say exactly how much of their diet comes from crop-eating pests, but a few researchers have tried; in just one eight-county region of Texas, bats are worth about $1.2 million worth of pesticides each year. That number will vary by locale, but it’s an useful rule of thumb. Fewer bats means lots more pesticides.
(That $1.2 million also puts into perspective the federal government’s response to White Nose. Despite desperate pleas for more, Congress allotted just $1.9 million for studying the disease this year. That was enough to fund just six research projects. Each is led by smart, dedicated scientists, but $1.9 million is a pittance — something to tell your elected representatives, now.)
However, while imminent agricultural catastrophe is the argument most likely to sway politicians, it’s wrong to think of White Nose and bats in purely utilitarian terms. As David Quammen articulated so beautifully in his essay “Jeremy Bentham, The Pietà, and a Precious Few Grayling,” every animal species on Earth deserves to be valued in itself, treasured like a masterpiece — because each species is a masterpiece, a form sculpted by millions of years evolution. In terms of artistry, biotechnology compares to evolution as you or I to Michelangelo. We can appreciate his work, even hope to comprehend it; but we lack the power of conception, much less creation.
Even if most of us know bats from fleeting glimpses, a flash of wings is enough to know they’re out there, filling the night with life. Bat’s don’t just provide ecosystem services: they’re unreplicable ways of being in the world. Other species might eventually occupy the niches of lost bats; and if Michelangelo’s works ceased to exist, we’d find something to fill the gap. It wouldn’t be the same.
We might also find other animals — cockroaches, perhaps, or bedbugs — to take their place in Halloween menagerie. Given enough time, nobody will remember what bats once meant.
Guest Blogger Profile: BRANDON KEIM (web/twitter) is a freelance science writer. His work appears weekly in Wired Science, and he’s now working on a citizen-funded Spot.us story about White Nose Syndrome. If you’d like to help support his reporting, please visit the pitch.