White-nose fungus on bats, colony collapse disorder affecting our bee populations and ranavirus infected amphibian species. These are just a few of the maladies currently plaguing New Jersey’s wildlife. Each has appeared in the state over the last couple of decades, causing some species to go completely extinct in recent years. While bats, bees and frogs are not exactly the most beloved creatures, losing them will be detrimental to our own health and society as we struggle to replace the ecosystem services that each provides. Below is a brief overview of each of these conditions, how they impact the rest of the environment and why it should matter to us.
According to The Conserve Wildlife of New Jersey, the Hibernia Mine in Morris County was once host to 27,000 hibernating bats. In as little as three years, that number has dwindled down to fewer than 1,000. This dramatic drop in population is due to white-nose syndrome, a fungus that is not native and thrives in cold weather. The fungus adheres to the membranes of hibernating bats and is particularly noticeable on their nose, hence the name. Bats with white-nose syndrome are disrupted during their hibernation, a time when they are supposed to be conserving their fat reserves, due to the irritation the fungus causes. In addition, bats are more susceptible to disease while they are hibernating because their immune systems are compromised as a result of reduced heart-rate, respiration, metabolism and body temperature associated with hibernating species. The bats wake-up early, dehydrated, hungry and without any food for them to eat.
It is believed that spores from the fungus came from Europe, traveling on the equipment and packs of spelunkers, people who like to explore caves. Not realizing that their equipment needed to be disinfected, the cavers traveled from cave to cave, unknowingly spreading spores. Since European bats evolved with the fungus they were not impacted by the white-nose fungus as the bats in the United States have been.
If you felt that the mosquitoes have been particularly bad this summer, the white-nose syndrome has probably played a significant role in growing mosquito populations. Bats prey on many nocturnal insects such as moths and mosquitoes. A single bat is capable of eating 1000 flying insects in an hour and can feed for as many as 6 hours a night.
What can you do?
- Build or buy bat houses to provide shelter
- report live or dead bats to your state wildlife agency
- plant moth attracting wildflowers in your garden
- spelunkers are asked to disinfect equipment after each exploration
- respect all posted signs for cave closures
- avoid caves that house large populations of bats.
Reptiles and amphibians are often grouped together in one study called herpetology. The Greek word “herpeton” actually means “crawling things.” While the animals and name leave much to be desired they are none the less an important part of our ecosystem. They consume many of the rodents and insects that would otherwise plague us with disease. Yet, herps populations worldwide are also suffering from several diseases unique to them, including one that was discovered recently at the School of Conservation, the Ranavirus.
Ranaviruses are strains viruses that have contributed to massive die-offs in reptile and amphibian species around the world and have even resulted in the extinction of some species. The symptoms include the observation of lethargy, lesions, erratic swimming, build-up of fluid under the skin and hemorrhaging of amphibians. Once the virus has been detected in a population, there can be a mortality rate of as much as 90%, (USGS). Although both reptiles and amphibians can be affected by the ranavirus, the USGS states, “In states east of the Mississippi River, especially Atlantic coastal states, mortality events tend to involve all species within the wetland (frogs, toads and salamanders) while those in western states, with less amphibian species diversity, tend to involve only one species.” Cold-blooded animal species seem to be so affected by these viruses because these viruses cannot survive in the higher body temperatures of birds or mammals.
Ranavirus can be spread fairly easily from wetland to wetland and species to species. If you were to investigate a wetland area that contained the ranavirus, the boots or net you used during your research could hold traces of the ranavirus and could spread to the next wetland area you explore if they are not properly cleaned. It could also be spread if a species that has been exposed to the virus brings it to another wetland or comes into contact with other reptile or amphibian species. This can happen often during the spring when these creatures emerge from hibernation and go straight into their mating rituals. The young off-spring of frogs and salamanders are particularly vulnerable since their immunity is compromised while undergoing metamorphosis.
What can you do?
- It is requested that those that recreate through wetland areas or biologists who conduct research in them disinfect boots and equipment with a solution of at least 10% bleach soaking for 1 minute.
- It is also asked that domesticated reptiles and amphibians not be released into wild habitats or transferred from one wild habitat to another as this can also increase the spread of the virus.
Colony Collapse Disorder:
Sometimes the most frightening issues involving our wildlife are what we don’t know. This is the case with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which involves the death of as many as 90% of the honey bees in individual hives. According to the USDA, “The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honey bees present in the hive but with a live queen and no dead honey bee bodies present.”
Although, honeybees were brought over to the United States by the first European settlers, they provide a substantial amount of pollination to our commercial agricultural crops. In fact, it is estimated that honeybees have a value of about $ 15 billion annually through the pollination of nearly 80% of our crops, (Nature Conservancy).
A study recently conducted in Colorado determined that losing just one pollinator species can reduce the success rate of pollination to occur in different plant species. Because pollinator’s are normally faithful to specific plant species, those plants are guaranteed to obtain the pollen they need to produce their seeds. However, when you remove the competition of other pollinators then you lose that faithfulness and therefore a key component in the pollination process.
Unlike the white-nose fungus in bats and ranavirus in reptiles and amphibians, scientists at this point only have theories as to why CCD is occurring. Investigations are being made to determine if it is a parasitic mite infiltrating hives, unknown fungus, virus or bacteria, environmental and management stressors from the beekeepers transporting bees over long distances and inadequate nutrition from lack of biodiversity or if it is a combination of all these factors.
What can you do?
- support local honey producers and purchasing their products
- planting a diverse species of native plants
- avoid spraying pesticides and herbicides, especially mid-day when honey bees are most active.
Since I began writing this article there have been reports of an unusually high number of dolphins washing up on New Jersey’s shore and the officials have suspended the moose hunt in Minnesota because the moose populations are in serious decline. While bats, bees and herptiles may not have the charisma of dolphins and moose, they all play vital roles in our ecosystem. It is important to continue to support researchers who study what is wrong with our wildlife and environment. Like the robins found by Rachel Carson’s friend in Silent Spring, animals are indicators of problems in our ecosystems that will someday impact people.