Bat-killing fungus, air patterns and microbeads: this week in environmental news

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

A brown bat. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A brown bat. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bat-killing fungus all but invincible, study finds (Mother Nature Network): The fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, causes white-nose syndrome in American bats and is extremely difficult to kill. It has already killed about 6 million American bats in the last seven years and has a mortality rate of nearly 100 percent. The fungus can be found in 22 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. The fungus most likely came from Europe, where native bats are mostly immune. Scientists are searching for ways to control the spread of the fungus because American bats are important to the economy. Insect-eating bats keep disease-spreading and crop-killing insects in check and save the U.S. agriculture industry around $3 billion per year.

Strange air patterns could help predict heat waves (Mother Nature Network): New research shows that heat waves are usually preceded by a global weather pattern known as a wavenumber-5 pattern. This consists of five high-pressure systems evenly distributed across the Northern Hemisphere. The configuration usually occurs 15 to 20 days before extreme weather in the United States. Because of this, the wavenumber-5 pattern could be used to enable better forecasting, which could save between 600 and 1,300 lives per year.

Nonprofit launches consumer app to help keep microbeads out of the Great Lakes (Journal Sentinel): Microbeads found in hand soaps, facial scrubs and other exfoliating products bypass sewage treatments and ultimately end up polluting the Great Lakes and getting eaten by wildlife. Researchers say there are higher concentrations of microbeads in the Great Lakes than there are in the oceans. Several companies, including L’Oreal, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, pledged to use natural alternatives to microbeads after the findings were shared. A Netherlands-based foundation has created a free cell phone app called “Beat the Microbead” that allows consumers to scan a product before buying it to figure out if the product contains microbeads and if the company has agreed to remove them or not.

Great Lakes state playing catch-up in effort to build water-based economy (Great Lakes Echo): Milwaukee and Ontario are ahead of Michigan in efforts to turn water-based technology, academic research and tourism into jobs and revenue. The director of the Michigan Economic Center, John Austin, said Michigan has all the assets necessary to support a thriving “blue economy:” plentiful freshwater, a growing tourism industry, research universities focused on water issues and manufacturers to turn concepts into products. Austin said building Michigan’s blue economy begins with cleaning polluted waterways and restoring damaged shorelines.

Endangered Kirtland’s Warbler: Looking good, but what lies ahead (MLive): The Kirtland’s Warbler has much such a drastic turnaround in Michigan that government agencies and non-governmental groups have discussed taking it off the federal Endangered Species list. Michigan holds 98% of the Kirtland’s Warbler population, so it is important to assure the birds have ongoing support once they come off the list. Continued human intervention is the key to the warbler’s success. It is also important to limit the population of cowbirds, who lay their eggs in warbler nests and compete for food.

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Species Spotlight: The Indiana Bat

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Michigan protects federally listed birds, snakes and plants—and one bat. The Indiana bat, the only endangered bat in the state, has been federally protected since the late 1960s.

An Indiana bat. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Indiana bats are small, with mouse-like ears and dark brown to black fur, and only weigh one-quarter of an ounce. Though these bats are small and light, they appear larger in flight and have a wingspan of 9 to 11 inches.

Indiana bats can be found in the eastern United States, with populations living in Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, New York, Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia. They spend their winters hibernating in cool, humid caves or abandoned mines, and roost under loose tree bark on dead or dying trees in the summer.

In 2005, the estimated population was about 457,000 Indiana bats—half as many as there were when the species was listed as endangered in 1967. Reasons for population loss include human disturbance, cave commercializing and improper gating, summer habitat loss or degradation, and pesticide and environmental contaminants. One additional factor threatens all species of bats and has killed millions bats since 2006: a disease called white-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome was first observed in a cave in New York in 2006 and has spread to caves in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The disease affects hibernating bats and is named for the white fungus that appears on the bat’s muzzle and other body parts. Bats with this disease exhibit uncharacteristic behavior during hibernating months, including flying outside during the daytime and clustering near entrances of the areas in which they hibernate. White-nose syndrome has killed between 5.7 and 6.7 million bats in the eastern part of North America; in some hibernating areas, as many as 90 to 100 percent of hibernating bats have died.

A bat with white-nose syndrome. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

State and national plans have been established to manage white-nose syndrome, and Michigan published its response plan in December 2010. The response plan focuses on delaying human-assisted introductions of the disease as much as possible, minimizing human dissemination of the fungus associated with the disease once it becomes present in Michigan, and conserving the remaining bat population after the disease has arrived. Thankfully, things are still looking good in the mitten state: the Michigan Department of Natural Resources conducted a statewide survey in 2012 and found no sign of white-nose syndrome.

For more information on white-nose syndrome, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s white-nose syndrome website.