The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recently issued a restriction requiring outdoor enthusiasts to suspend exploration of any cave or mine sites that serve as winter hibernation roosts for bats, warning that human disturbances are harmful to the bat population. Since 2006, when a fatal disease known as “white-nose syndrome” was first discovered in bats in a New York cave, wildlife management agencies across the United States and Canada have been working to prevent the pathogen from spreading. The disease has killed more than 90 percent of bats at most hibernation sites in New York.
“Research generated by DEC’s Wildlife Diversity staff and our partners demonstrates that white-nose syndrome makes bats highly susceptible to disturbances,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “Even a single, seemingly quiet visit can kill bats that would otherwise survive the winter. If you see hibernating bats, assume you are doing harm and leave immediately.”
Posted notices restricting the use of caves and mines should be followed. If anyone should encounter hibernating bats while underground, they are asked to leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible. Experts believe that when bats are disturbed during hibernation periods, it forces them to raise their body temperatures, which depletes their fat reserves. This affects bats’ energy levels and places the bats in a compromised state, which can lead to death. There is currently no treatment for addressing the impact of white-nose syndrome on bats, but DEC, working together with the state Department of Health and the National Wildlife Health Center, remains committed to finding a cure.
Bats are the only mammals capable of true and sustained flight because their forelimbs form wings. In comparison, flying squirrels can only glide for short distances and only in a downward direction. Bats do not beat their entire wings as birds do but flap their outstretched long webbed fingers instead. Bats are the second-largest order of mammals and are present throughout much of the world. They pollinate flowers, disperse seeds—and most important of all—devour enormous amounts of insect pests, which reduces the need for pesticides.
Bats can only take flight from their familiar upside-down hanging position. They can’t take off from the ground as birds do. I didn’t know that when I was a kid growing up in Sea Breeze, NY, and found a bat crawling along on the ground. It had apparently been blown out of a tree in a windstorm and was unable to take off. Fascinated with my find, I donned a pair of my father’s heavy-duty electrical gloves and placed the furious creature in an unused parakeet cage in the garage. Needless to say, my dad was not as fascinated when he came home from work and saw my new pet hanging upside-down from the trapeze inside the birdcage. He promptly donned the same gloves and released it.