Eek! Bat Populations Are Shrinking. Here Are A Few Ways to Help
By Alexa Peters
October is a time for bats. As the crisp fall air descends, plastic bats swing from trees and confectioners make treats in their little winged shapes. The little spooky creatures even have an entire week leading up to Halloween dedicated to them: International Bat Week. Yet they remain largely misunderstood.
Truth be told, bats are essential to humans; without them, we probably wouldn't have such things like avocados, chocolate, and tequila. Of the more than 1,390 species of bats throughout the world, Bat Conservation International considers many of them "keystone species," because of their vital roles as seed dispersers and pollinators in our ecosystem.
Plus, insectivorous bats help control pesky insects like mosquitos, as well as beetles and moths that destroy crops. The bat conservation group estimates their value to agriculture may be as high as $53 billion a year.
Still, the 15 species of bats regional to the Pacific Northwest are suffering. Researchers at Oregon State University have published a new study showing that one, the hoary bat—named for its unique, frosted fur—has seen a steady population decline in the Pacific Northwest. That's likely because of collisions with wind turbines. On top of that, some species, such as the little brown bat, have been decimated from a mysterious disease called White Nose Syndrome. These issues are compounded by how few pups a bat has per year.
So what to do about disappearing bats? Here are five suggestions from experts for recovering bat populations.
1. Educate About Bats, and Start Young
Saving bats and preserving the multitude of benefits they bring has to start with the narrative we tell about them.
First we need to understand what they are—and what aren't. Many see bats as flying rodents, when in fact these dog-faced mammals are closely related to humans. Their wings, in fact, are a variation on the human hand.
We tend to avoid bats because we fear them – or at least fear what they might be carrying: rabies. Yet, Dr. Thomas Rodhouse, lead researcher on the Oregon State study, says the risk of rabies is lower than you might think, especially if you learn the proper, respectful bat-handling techniques.
A disproportionate fear of bats can also be addressed in how we educate children about them. With this in mind, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife provides education trunks that teachers and parents can rent.
"We have actual specimens of bats preserved for kids to see up close," says Rachel Blomker, communications manager in public affairs for the department. "We've got bat skeletons, and it's interesting a lot of folks think bats are like flying mice, but actually bats are more related to humans than to rodents. It's really cool then to get kids thinking about the importance of bats and just keeping an eye out and being more aware of the need for bats."
2. Recover and Preserve Bat Habitat
Bats love river valleys, where the insects on which they feast are the most plentiful. As a result, preserving the habitat there can be key for strengthening bat resiliency, Rodhouse says.
"If there's one thing we could do to help hoary bats, it's plant and preserve big cottonwoods along river valleys. That's a habitat strategy that could be considered a mitigation to offset the kinds of losses going on," Rodhouse said.
Another suggestion to aiding bats is retaining the snags in wooded areas, Rodhouse said. Bats roost in the sloughed bark of these hollow, decaying trees and will often raise their babies there during the summer—so, leave those dead limbs in your yard if you can.
3. Plan Bat-Friendly Urban Spaces
Bats have learned how to use urban areas to their advantage. This is why we often encounter them using spaces in our homes and around other man-made structures such as bridges. But by building awareness, we can accommodate bats in ways that help them thrive while also preventing an unexpected encounter.
At home, installing bat boxes or small wooden bat houses, deters bats from entering your home. Unfortunately, hoary bats don't use these, but for species in the area such as the little brown bat, they can be a great way to promote peaceful coexistence.
4. Report Bat Sightings
Bats are elusive and hard to study. Species in Pacific Northwest tend to hibernate in smaller groups than those in the east—making them difficult to locate, Blomker says.
She suggests that one of the most helpful things a person can do is help track and monitor bats—especially if they are roosting in spaces on your private property. That way, biologists can come out, check on the colonies and better understand how they live.
"We have an online reporting tool ... that has helped us quite a bit; we had our first case of WNS found east of the cascades in Washington just last month," Blomker said.
A private land owner had reported a colony of 750 bats in his barn in addition to some dead ones that tested positive for White Nose Syndrome, a devastating, cold-loving fungus that eats away bat wings as they hibernate, wakes them up early from torpor, weakens bats and causes them to starve to death.
5. Support the Efforts of Conservation Groups
Dr. Winifred Frick, chief scientist with Bat Conservation International suggests people seeking to help preserve the population look for opportunities to fund such work.
By becoming a member of Bat Conservation International, for example, you help scientists address threats like turbines and the mysterious White Nose Syndrome. White Nose Syndrome is a particular concern because it has killed an estimated 6.7 billion bats since 2009, and scientists are still unsure how the fungus that causes the disease spreads and whether it can be eradicated.
A donation also helps fund bat educational programs, habitat restoration, and further bat research. In the Pacific Northwest, a nonprofit called Bats Northwest, works to educate the public about bats, teams up with government biologists to protect them, and promotes responsible actions in human-bat conflict.
Conservation groups like these also ally with industry groups to promote corporate accountability. The bat conservation group has been working closely with the wind energy industry for more than 15 years, especially after 2011 data revealed that about 450,000 bat fatalities per year occurred at wind facilities, with hoary bats accounting for 50% of the fatalities.
"We've done a lot of work trying to identify different solutions including determining if it's possible to change the wind and wind turbine blade spin to reduce the number of fatalities," Frick said. "And technological solutions like acoustic deterrents that could potentially deter bats from flying near the turbine blades" in the first place.
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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