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Professor works to halt extinction of bat species

By Amber Kazmierski
On November 19, 2010

  • Rick Adams, a UNC professor of biology, holds a bat in a cave while on a nature expedition. Adams’ latest research is in the field of bat habitats and how they are facing possible extinction. Courtesy of UNC's School of Biology

To be or not to be extinct? This is the question Rick Adams, a UNC professor of biology, is asking.

Adams said he has a passion for bats and their survival and has studied them and their nature since he was a child. At the University of Colorado, he organized a project with graduate students to conduct field research on bats. He said this was the moment he became "hooked" on bats.

Bats have a life span of about 40 years, and Adams has found their reproduction has gone down, which means their population size is suffering. This is only one factor in their declining population.

"Bat populations decline globally due to outright human killing, human destruction of global habitats and ecosystems, and human-caused changes in global climates," Adams said.

In New England, a European fungus has taken over caves and the bats within them. The fungus grows on the bats' faces and then covers their bodies while they hibernate. This makes them wake up in the middle of their hibernation and  burn off their food. Most of them starve to death.  This is called white-nose syndrome and has been moving west at the rate of 800 miles a year because of the bats' migrant patterns and people who unknowingly transport it.

Scientists are trying to figure out how to stop the spread of the fungus. One option being considered is stopping people from going into certain caves and mines for a year.

Adams said many people may not know is that bats are extremely essential to the environment. At night, bats consume billions of insects such as mosquitoes and other agricultural pests. Without their nightly feedings, the insect population would increase immensely.

"The effects of this have been estimated in the billions of dollars for crop losses, increased spraying of pesticides and loss of tourist dollars from private and public parks because people will not be able to deal with the increase in mosquitoes and other insects at night," he said.

Bats are also responsible for pollinating many species of plants humans use for food and the construction of many building materials.

"If you have fruit in your house, chances are those are the product of bat-pollinated plants," Adams said.

Adams said people are now witnessing the sixth mass extinction of bats on the planet, and this is the first time it is being induced by humans. He said scientists estimate three species go extinct every hour at any given location on earth because of habitat destruction, excessive hunting and species exploitation.

"In a sense, it is not about bats; it's about helping ourselves," Adams said.

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