Article
Joel Sartore/National Geographic Creative

Stalking the Bat Killer

America’s bats are being destroyed by a terrible disease. Meet the amazing humans determined to save these extraordinary and important creatures.    

By Kristin Lewis
From the May 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to learn about the plight of bats by reading an article and conducting research

Lexiles: 810L, 930L
Other Key Skills: author’s craft, point of view, sensory details, text features, interpreting text, key ideas and details, inference, text structure, applying knowledge
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images think about how the author makes you care about the plight of bats.

Picture yourself as a little brown bat. You are tiny—half the size of an iPhone. Yet you are one of the most feared and misunderstood creatures on the planet. For thousands of years, humans have detested you, calling you a demon and a bloodsucker and a monster. But you are none of those things. What you are is extraordinary. You can fly as fast as a car. You can swallow 1,000 insects in less than an hour. Your highly sensitive ears are the envy of the animal kingdom. They enable you to hunt at night, a silent shadow swooping down from the sky with deadly accuracy. You can catch a moth with such pinpoint precision that you’ll swallow the body in mid-air, leaving nothing behind but the wings.

Right now, though, it is not moths that are in danger.

It is you.

It’s a cold winter day in an old abandoned mine in New Jersey. You and the hundreds of other bats in your colony are fast asleep, upside down and stuck to the walls like dark globs of glue. You’ve been here for weeks, hibernating just as you do every winter.

Suddenly, you are jolted awake.

You feel strange.

You are very, very thirsty.

And hungry.

So hungry!

You notice other bats waking up too. You also notice bats lying on the ground, not moving. They all have a mysterious white fuzz on their noses and wings—like a dusting of powdered sugar.

You don’t know what is happening. All you know is that you need food or you will die. You open your wings and fly out of your cave across the snow. But your belly is so painfully empty that flying is an agony.

You crash to the ground.

Picture yourself as a little brown bat. You are tiny—half the size of an iPhone. Yet you are one of the most feared and misunderstood creatures on Earth. For thousands of years, humans have detested you, calling you a demon and a bloodsucker and a monster. But you are none of those things. What you are is extraordinary. You can fly as fast as a car. You can swallow 1,000 insects in less than an hour. Your highly sensitive ears allow you to hunt at night, a silent shadow swooping down from the sky. You can catch a moth with such precision that you’ll swallow the body in mid-air, leaving nothing behind but the wings.

Right now, though, it is not moths that are in danger.

It is you.

It’s a cold winter day in an abandoned mine in New Jersey. You and the hundreds of other bats in your colony are sleeping, upside down and stuck to the walls like dark globs of glue. You’ve been here for weeks, hibernating just as you do every winter.

Suddenly, you are jolted awake.

You feel strange.

You are very, very thirsty.

And hungry.

So hungry!

Other bats are waking up too. And some are lying on the ground, not moving. They all have a strange white fuzz on their noses and wings—like a dusting of powdered sugar.

You don’t know what's happening. All you know is that you need food or you will die. You fly out of your cave. But your belly is so painfully empty that flying is an agony.

You crash to the ground.

A Mysterious Disease

You are the victim of a terrible disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS). This disease first appeared in New York State in 2006. Since then, it has spread across North America like a tsunami of death.

In some places, scientists have journeyed into caves and mines where bats hibernate only to stumble over piles of carcasses. In most areas, though, bats have simply vanished. They likely starved—after all, there are virtually no insects for them to eat in the winter. Or, in their weakened states, they became easy meals for birds and raccoons.

At first, scientists were baffled. But they soon discovered the culprit: a fungus.

This fungus grows in cool, moist places—places like the caves and mines where many types of bats hibernate. It occurs naturally in Asia and Europe. No one knows exactly how the fungus got to America, though humans are likely to blame. Some spores probably hitched a ride on a boat or plane—perhaps on someone’s shoe, jacket, or backpack.

However it got to America, the fungus is here now. And for bats that hibernate, it is a disaster.

At least 25 of the 47 species of bats in North America do hibernate, from about November to April. Like bears, bats prepare for hibernation by eating a lot in order to store up fat in their bodies.

Then, during hibernation, they go into something called torpor, during which their heart rates and body temperatures drop to save energy. They remain in torpor for several weeks at a time, waking up briefly to do things like drink water before going back to sleep.

The fungus, however, disrupts this cycle. As it spreads across their bodies, it causes the bats to become dehydrated, which makes them wake up far more often than they should. Being awake so frequently means they soon burn through their fat stores, becoming emaciated and sickly. Some fall to the ground, dead. Others leave to look for food only to find the world locked in a winter freeze they cannot endure.

Scientists call this condition white-nose syndrome after the fuzzy white spots that appear on the bats’ noses. The devastation has been horrific. WNS has spread to 33 states as well as seven provinces in Canada. At least six million bats are presumed to have died. In some bat colonies, more than 90 percent of the bats have been wiped out. Other colonies have disappeared entirely. Several species have become threatened or endangered.

And now, WNS is attacking you.

You are the victim of a disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS). This disease first appeared in New York State in 2006. Since then, it has spread across North America like a tsunami of death.

In some places, scientists have journeyed into caves and mines where bats hibernate only to stumble over piles of carcasses. In most areas, though, bats have simply vanished. They likely starved (after all, there are almost no insects for them to eat in the winter). Or, in their weakened states, they became easy meals for birds and raccoons.

At first, scientists were baffled. But they soon discovered the culprit: a fungus.

This fungus grows in cool, moist places—like the caves and mines where many types of bats hibernate. It occurs naturally in Asia and Europe. No one knows how the fungus got to America, but humans are likely to blame. Some spores probably came by boat or plane—perhaps on someone’s shoe, jacket, or backpack.

However it got to America, the fungus is here now. And for bats that hibernate, it's a disaster.

At least 25 of the 47 species of bats in North America do hibernate, from about November to April. Like bears, bats prepare for hibernation by eating a lot in order to store up fat in their bodies.

Then, during hibernation, they go into something called torpor, during which their heart rates and body temperatures drop to save energy. They remain in torpor for several weeks at a time, waking up briefly to do things like drink water before going back to sleep.

The fungus disrupts this cycle. As it spreads across their bodies, it causes the bats to become dehydrated, which makes them wake up far more often than they should. Being awake so often, they soon burn through their fat stores and become emaciated and sickly. Some fall to the ground, dead. Others leave to look for food only to find the world locked in a winter freeze they cannot endure.

Scientists call this condition white-nose syndrome after the fuzzy white spots that appear on the bats’ noses. The devastation has been horrific. WNS has spread to 33 states as well as seven provinces in Canada. At least six million bats are presumed to have died. In some bat colonies, more than 90 percent of the bats have been wiped out. Other colonies have disappeared entirely. Several species have become threatened or endangered.

And now, WNS is attacking you.

Stephen Alvarez/National Geographic Creative 

White-nose syndrome is named for the white fuzz that grows on the bats’ noses.

The Bat Woman 

You are lying on the ground when a human approaches. You are terrified that this human is a hungry predator coming to eat you. But that is not what happens. With gentle hands, this human picks you up and places you in a small box.

You are brought to Milford, New Jersey, to the home of a woman named Jackie Kashmer. Kashmer is a bat rehabilitator, or “rehabber.” She has dedicated her life to helping sick and injured bats like you.

Kashmer’s home sits at the top of a hill surrounded by farms and woodlands. If you could fly through the house, you would know right away that Kashmer loves animals. You’d see the two small white dogs that lick her face and jump excitedly on the couch, the half-eaten food left on her back porch for stray cats, and the turtle pool she’s building in her backyard.

But Kashmer’s life centers around bats like you.

“People think, oh, bats are just little flying rats; they don’t have personalities,” she says. “But they do. Some are timid. Some are bullies.”

Kashmer has worked as a volunteer rehabbing animals for more than 30 years. But 15 years ago, she decided to focus only on bats. She got a license from the state. And she built a house a few steps from her back porch that is designed just for your needs. There is a large refrigerator for hibernation and a netted enclosure to fly around in. A sign on one door reads “Bat Motel.”

There are hundreds of bats here—not just little brown bats like you, but also big brown bats, silver-haired bats, and free-tailed bats. The free-tails, which Kashmer rescued from a zoo in Florida, have their own room painted with trees and flowers.

You are lying on the ground. A human approaches. You're scared that this human is a predator coming to eat you. But that's not what happens. Gently, this human picks you up and places you in a small box.

You are brought to Milford, New Jersey, to the home of a woman named Jackie Kashmer. Kashmer is a bat rehabilitator, or “rehabber.” She has dedicated her life to helping sick and injured bats like you.

Kashmer’s home sits at the top of a hill surrounded by farms and woodlands. If you could fly through the house, you would know right away that Kashmer loves animals. You’d see the two small white dogs that lick her face, the food left on her back porch for stray cats, and the turtle pool she’s building in her backyard.

But Kashmer’s life centers on bats like you.

“People think, oh, bats are just little flying rats; they don’t have personalities,” she says. “But they do. Some are timid. Some are bullies.”

Kashmer has worked as a volunteer rehabbing animals for more than 30 years. Fifteen years ago, she decided to focus only on bats. She got a license from the state. And she built a house a few steps from her back porch that is designed just for your needs. There is a large refrigerator for hibernation and a netted enclosure to fly around in. A sign on one door reads “Bat Motel.”

There are hundreds of bats here—little brown bats like you, and also big brown bats, silver-haired bats, and free-tailed bats. The free-tails, which Kashmer rescued from a zoo in Florida, have their own room painted with trees and flowers.

Courtesy Jackie Kashmer 

Bat Hero

Jackie Kashmer runs the New Jersey Bat Sanctuary. Many bats in her care are released back into the wild once they have recovered. Bats unlikely to survive in the wild, such as those with wing injuries, remain with her in captivity. Kashmer even has a bat hotline that people can call if they come across a bat in need.

By Your Side 

When you arrive in this special place, Kashmer gets to work immediately. She carefully removes the fungus from your nose and body with a mixture of water and vinegar. She knows that this stings your delicate skin, but she also knows that it must be done to save your life. When she holds you, you make small squeaks that tell her you are petrified. This breaks her heart. You bite her, your teeth piercing her glove like staples. But she doesn’t mind. She understands that you are frightened.

She carefully checks your wings, looking for holes and tears the fungus may have caused. She is overjoyed to find your wings intact.

When Kashmer is done cleaning you, she places you in a mesh box with a warming light that soothes you. She sits next to you with a pile of fresh mealworms. With tweezers, she painstakingly squishes their heads so they will be easier for you to eat.

At first, you refuse to eat them. Mealworms are not your natural food. You would much prefer some tasty mosquitoes. But eventually you give in. Your belly fills. Kashmer places a cloth over the box and your world grows dark and shadowy, just how you like it.

You fall asleep.

For the next few weeks, Kashmer will wake up early every morning and go to her day job. And every night she will rush home to take care of you, to feed you and clean your cage, sometimes staying up until 2 a.m. to make sure you’re OK. 

When you arrive in this special place, Kashmer gets to work. She carefully removes the fungus from your nose and body with a mixture of water and vinegar. She knows that this stings your delicate skin, but it must be done to save your life. When she holds you, you make small squeaks that tell her you are petrified. This breaks her heart. You bite her, your teeth piercing her glove. But she doesn’t mind. She knows you're scared.

She checks your wings, looking for holes and tears the fungus may have caused. She is happy to find your wings intact.

When Kashmer is done cleaning you, she places you in a mesh box with a warming light. She sits next to you with a pile of fresh mealworms. With tweezers, she squishes their heads to make them easier for you to eat.

At first, you won’t eat them. Mealworms are not your natural food. You would prefer some tasty mosquitoes. But eventually you eat. Your belly fills. Kashmer places a cloth over the box. Your world grows dark and shadowy, just how you like it.

You sleep.

For the next few weeks, Kashmer will wake up early every morning and go to her day job. Every night, she will rush home to take care of you. 

Stephen Alvarez/National Geographic Creative

BAT CAVES

Biologists check on the bats in Hubbard’s Cave in Tennessee. That dark patch on the cave wall is a cluster of about 300,000 gray bats in hibernation. One of the ways scientists are helping to stop the spread of WNS is by closing caves to the public. This is in order to lower the chance of humans accidentally spreading the fungus.

So Misunderstood 

Throughout history, many humans have loathed and feared bats. With their pointy ears, human-like faces, and nocturnal habits, bats were considered an omen of bad luck and even death. In myths and folktales, bats are often associated with demons and the souls of the restless dead. And of course, there is Dracula, Europe’s most famous vampire, who took the form of a bat and feasted on human blood.

In the United States, bats have long been seen as pests, like mice or roaches. Sensational reports of bats attacking people fueled the fear. In reality, though, such stories were either exaggerated or made-up. Only three of the more than 1,300 species of bats on Earth feed on blood—and none of them currently live in the U.S. What’s more, so-called vampire bats feed mainly on the blood of cows, horses, and birds—not of humans. (Vampire bats don’t actually suck blood; they bite flesh and then lap up the blood that spills out.)

In fact, bats are afraid of humans and tend to avoid them.

It is true that bats, like any mammal, can get rabies—a disease deadly to humans if not treated. So it’s important that no one other than a trained professional touches a bat. If humans come in physical contact with one—or think they might have—they should see a doctor to be safe.

Throughout history, many humans have hated and feared bats. With their pointy ears, human-like faces, and nocturnal habits, bats were considered an omen of bad luck and even death. In myths and folktales, bats are often associated with demons and the souls of the restless dead. Dracula, Europe’s most famous vampire, took the form of a bat and feasted on human blood.

In the United States, bats have long been seen as pests, like mice or roaches. Sensational reports of bats attacking people fueled the fear. But such stories were either exaggerated or made-up. Only three of the more than 1,300 species of bats on Earth feed on blood—and none of them currently live in the U.S. What’s more, so-called vampire bats feed mainly on the blood of cows, horses, and birds—not of humans. (Vampire bats don’t actually suck blood; they bite flesh and then lap up the blood that spills out.)

In fact, bats are afraid of humans and tend to avoid them.

It's true that bats, like any mammal, can get rabies—a disease deadly to humans if not treated. So only trained professionals should touch bats. If humans come in physical contact with one—or think they might have—they should see a doctor to be safe.    

Fear of Night 

So where does all this bat fear come from?

“People tend to be afraid of things that they don’t know or understand,” says Dr. Gary McCracken, a bat expert and evolutionary biologist from the University of Tennessee. “And bats are kind of different, right? They are active at night. People in the olden days were afraid of the night.”

Indeed, humans are wired to have a natural fear of nighttime. That’s because for early humans, nighttime was when animal attacks were more likely. Same with attacks from enemies. Being anxious about the dark has helped humans survive by keeping them alert and careful.

Now, of course, electricity lights up the nighttime. But for thousands of years, this was not the case. It’s no surprise that many myths and legends involve monsters that lurk in the shadows. And as creatures of the night, bats became a powerful symbol of the terrifying unknown.

So where does all this bat fear come from?

“People tend to be afraid of things that they don’t know or understand,” says Dr. Gary McCracken, a bat expert and evolutionary biologist from the University of Tennessee. “And bats are kind of different, right? They are active at night. People in the olden days were afraid of the night.”

Indeed, humans are wired to have a natural fear of nighttime. For early humans, nighttime was when animal attacks were more likely. Same with attacks from enemies. Being anxious about the dark has helped humans survive by keeping them alert and careful.

Now, of course, electricity lights up the nighttime. But for thousands of years, this was not the case. It’s no surprise that many myths and legends involve monsters that lurk in the shadows. And as creatures of the night, bats became a symbol of the terrifying unknown.    

Michael Durham/Minden Pictures

This is a long-eared bat from Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee.

Special and Important

Today, the reputation of bats is starting to change. Rehabbers like Kashmer as well as scientists and conservationists have been working hard to help the public understand why bats are special and important.

For example, bats have the ability to echolocate [EKOH-loh-kayt]. They can “see” in the darkness using not their eyes but their ears. As they fly, bats make sounds that humans cannot detect. These sounds bounce off trees, buildings, cars, and other animals, creating echoes that bats use to form a detailed “sound map” in their brains.

The ability to echolocate makes bats expert night hunters; they eat an enormous number of insects. Without bats, the number of insects buzzing around would skyrocket. There would be more mosquitoes that could spread diseases. There would be more moths feasting on corn and more flies making a meal of the fruits and vegetables that humans grow.