published Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Cook: Calligraphy with wings

Most nights in the spring and summer, as the sun begins to fold itself down in the western sky and the daylight slips off like a cocktail dress, bats emerge from some mysterious place in our front yard, and jerk back and forth in the air above our heads, like calligraphy with wings.

It is beautiful.

You would hope something so beautiful would last and last. But there is a terrible-awful happening to our natural world these days, and bats are dying in record numbers.

Geomyces destructans.

It is the scientific name for the fungus that is sweeping like a genocide through bat colonies in the U.S. The street term is white nose syndrome: a fungus that infects and invades hibernating bats, whose muzzles appear fungi-dusted with white powdered sugar, making them look kind of like Al Pacino in "Scarface."

Two years ago in March, white nose syndrome was confirmed in Tennessee. Earlier this month, it was discovered in Russell Cave near Bridgeport, making Alabama the southernmost state the disease has spread to and the 17th state in the U.S. with infected bats.

Scientists use words like "catastrophic" when describing this news. In the last five years, white nose has already killed nearly 7 million bats in the eastern U.S.

Bats suffer a near-zero-percent survival rate against the disease, and Alabama holds the largest winter and summer cave populations for the endangered gray bat.

Bats eat mosquitoes -- hundreds per hour -- as ravenously as Takeru Kobayashi, the guy who eats Krystals by the double digits. On a given night, pregnant females can eat close to their body weight in bugs, while male bats dutifully follow behind, paying compliment after compliment on their way to buy convenience store ice cream (only half of that statement is true).

Bat mothers only give birth to one offspring a year, and can detect their baby among millions of other cave-dwelling bats simply by voice or scent. Father bats have a tougher time locating their young, mainly because of college football and other distractions (I'll stop now).

Agriculturally, bats are worth a minimum of $3 billion each year to farmers, according to the Washington Post, as they consume critters that would otherwise damage crops.

Bats are indicator species, meaning that -- like the canary in the coal mine -- they are the first line of warning when ecosystems become threatened, sick or grave. Keep that in mind when you read this: More than half of all American bat species in the U.S. are endangered or in severe decline.

And this: Amphibians and honeybees -- both indicators -- also are rapidly disappearing.

And one more: Our animal population is on the threshold of a mass extinction. Roughly 75 percent of all animal species could face extinction within the next 300 years, according to a study published last year in the journal Nature.

Imagine three-fourths of all animal life in Chattanooga gone. Vanished. The end.

This would be the sixth mass extinction our planet has endured, but this one is bearing down on us like a runaway train. Much of the damage being done today is caused by the usual suspect: human beings. Me. You. The way we live. You know, unnatural things like deforestation of the rainforest, mountaintop removal, pollution of the oceans, the decimation of coral reefs.

"This is really gloom-and-doom stuff," the study's author told Science magazine.

No kidding. We need to quintuple legislative and conservation efforts, and each and every candidate running for public office should not be allowed to dodge past these issues and the responses they demand.

But this issue and its answers do not need to reside exclusively in the head, in our intellect. They need to sink, drop like a heavy weight, into our hearts and spirits, where the best solution lies in wait, as if slumbering in a deep sleep.

Love. Respect.

A few years ago, accompanied by a wildlife guide, I canoed out into the waters of a local lake to the mouth of a cave on the far shore. It grew dark. We waited. And then, as if answering the call of some trumpet I could not hear, bats -- gazillions of them -- rushed out of the cave mouth into the night sky.

Me in my little canoe just sat there, floating, in awe. My cellphone doesn't teach me this. My television certainly doesn't.

Whatever we love, we cherish. We value. We respect and protect. Bats hunt through echolocation, emitting calls out into the environment around them, and listening to the echo that returns to them.

It's high time we begin to listen.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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