You are walking back to your dorm after night class on the eve of Halloween and this corner of the campus is dark and eerily quiet. You hasten your pace, rushing to the next street lamp, but feeling as though it’s becoming more distant. Suddenly, a black creature swoops past your head and you panic, letting out a shriek and running faster than ever before.
If any Rider students have this experience, there’s no need to be frightened. New Jersey is home to nine species of bats, and not a single one is looking to suck your blood.
Actually, you won’t find a vampire bat anywhere in the United States. New Jersey’s bats are insectivores, and a single bat can eat thousands of bugs in one night. These creatures play a vital role in controlling diseases — by eating ticks and mosquitoes that spread viruses and parasites — and protecting crops and other plant life from pesky critters like stink bugs, caterpillars and beetles.
In fact, a recent study in Science magazine revealed that bats save the U.S. agricultural industry up to $53 billion each year. Without bats, farmers would need to invest in expensive pesticides in order to fend off pests that eat and damage crops. Americans would also be consuming even higher levels of pesticides than they already are, which the Environmental Protection Agency states can result in complications such as cancer, birth defects and nerve damage.
Bats are also vital to plant life around the world and ensure that we have delicious fruit to eat year-round by pollinating flowers and distributing seeds. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, bats assist in the pollination of over 300 species of fruit including mangoes, bananas and guavas. The shelves of our supermarkets would be empty without these creatures of the night.
Another benefit that bats offer plant life worldwide is nutrients. Guano, or bat feces, is an excellent fertilizer that offers high amounts of minor and trace minerals, nitrogen and phosphorus that help plants thrive, according to bettervegetablegardening.com. Gardeners can even buy buckets of guano, but protecting the bat population is a cost-free way to help grow delicious fruits and vegetables.
However, this fight to protect bats has proven to be challenging in recent years. Our agricultural industry may soon face challenging and expensive hurdles unless we take action to save bats from a deadly disease called White-nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is wiping out bats across the country and is particularly pushing the little brown bat frighteningly close to extinction. WNS is a fungal disease that targets bats during hibernation, spreading through colonies as they sleep the winter away. The Conserve Wildlife of New Jersey reports that approximately 6 million bats have already met their death due to WNS, and further declines in population are expected this winter.
Bats are also threatened by the destruction of their habitats — many bats rest in trees — and the disturbance of their hibernation, often in caves, during winter months. Bats are commonly noticed around this time of year because they are out and about, searching for and stocking up on food and body fat to prepare for hibernation, much like bears do. If people or other animals that venture into their dens disturb the bats, they use up their stored energy and, when hungry, venture off into the cold winter nights to find that there are no insects left to fill their stomachs. Left with no food, they are dying off at alarming rates.
A similar phenomenon is caused by WNS, which infects hibernating bats and makes them restless, disturbing other bats in the den and causing widespread starvation and death. Scientists are fighting to stop this disease before it wipes bat species off of our planet forever and devastates our agricultural industry.
As you take in the bats with bloody fangs that adorn homes and stores this fall, be sure to remember the bright side to bats and their importance to life as we know it.
Printed in the 10/29/14 issue.