This essay about the life threatening effects of white-nose syndrome on the bats of Mackinac Island was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
At 4:45 am on August 22nd, I heard the bats return to their roost behind the cottage shutter. Prior to this morning I had heard only one, a sound like a tennis ball caroming off the screen, followed by a scritching up the screen into the upside-down bed behind the shutter. This morning–good news!—I heard perhaps 10 caroms and scritchings. That means young ones have been reared and are now hunting insects through the night.
Sadly, 10 is many less than every other summer in memory.
White-nose syndrome has struck the bats of Mackinac.
I have followed the trajectory of that disease—actually a mysterious fungus that affixes to the nose, ears and wings of bats to disturb their winter torpor, causing them to burn energy and starve—since news articles began to appear in 2007 describing people finding millions of dead bats in and around eastern caves. I had hoped that Mackinac—an island after all—might avoid this tragedy. But it seems our bats have had serious mortality this year.
Locals who winter here reported seeing bats flying in January, during the day, looking for food. Seagulls snatched them out of the air. Or they froze. Or starved. Because of course there was no insect food. Their little brown bodies littered the snow as it melted in spring.
Historically, bats have loved it here as much as tourists. This island of brecciated limestone offered many homey hotels of limestone caves and fissures, and as houses and cottages arrived also caves in walls and behind shutters. Food was plentiful—mosquitoes, gnats, and midges swirl along the roads and trails.
Until this year, Mackinac famously has had few mosquitoes or other insects to bother people, because the bats were consuming them by the untold thousands every summer night during their radar voyages down Main Street and through the forests and over the bluffs. Already this summer, a wet one, mosquitoes—still relatively rare—have returned to annoy we humans on occasion.
A mosquito bite or two in the evening while one sits on the porch is not a tragedy. But white-nose syndrome and the near eradication of bats in eastern North American is indeed a tragedy. The little brown bat (myotis lucifugus) has suffered a major population collapse in the East and now through this region, and is in danger of extinction.
Extinction. The word holds a shudder in it, like a gong, a knell. Several other species are also threatened, mortality rates as high as 95 percent so far. Since the arrival of the fungus from Europe—or the discovery of its arrival—in 2006, it has marched relentlessly across the country. This April, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced that the fungus had been found in Alpena County, Mackinac County, and Dickinson County. Since then, it has been discovered in Wisconsin and Minnesota as well.
And on Mackinac Island. We have had a colony of bats living behind our sheltered northwest bedroom shutter for at least a human generation. They returned year after year to raise their young—born alive and nursed and taught to hunt the night. A smaller family returned annually to a cavity in our bedroom wall where we would hear their high-pitched voices squabbling and consoling and occasionally disciplining junior when he took a left turn instead of right and ended up inside the house instead of out.
So far as I know there is nothing we humans can do to prevent this disease or its spread, as it appears transmitted bat-to-bat.
We can and should support the scientists who are on the case. And avoid visiting all bat caves, as our clothing may be silently contaminated. But the prognosis is not promising.
In Europe bat populations developed immunity over time. Perhaps the few remaining bats of Mackinac will do the same, though that is unlikely in any foreseeable scenario.
So grieve, my friends, grieve for our bat friends. No one wanted to hurt them. Life goes on, at least for some. “The moving finger writes….” And, to put a positive spin on it, Mackinac’s mosquitos seem a bit plumper with happiness this summer.