A sad time for bats and bat biologists

I just learned that the young and brilliant bat researcher Bjorn Siemers died less than a week ago. These last few years have been a string of sadness for both bats and bat research.

First there was the discovery of the massive death of bats at wind farms. As I was finishing college, it was becoming increasingly apparent that wind turbines posed a serious threat to migrating bat populations. At some sites, wind farms were killing more migratory bats than we knew existed in that region. It was a mystery how the turbines could be killing so many bats. Bat carcasses litter the ground at wind farms, with bat deaths outnumbering bird deaths 10 to 1, even though the number and diversity of birds greatly exceeds that of bats. It turned out that only half of the bat mortalities were due to collisions with the huge turbine blades. Migrating bats only had to get near the wind turbines for their internal organs to hemorrhage due to the sudden change in air pressure. At least the non-migrating bats were safe. Or so we thought…

English: Little brown bat with white-nose synd...
English: Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a boy, I used to watch the little brown bats forage over the Schroon River near my house almost every night. That might not be possible again for hundreds of years. In 2006, the year after I graduated from college, white-nose syndrome appeared in caves and mines in the area where I grew up. White-nose syndrome is caused by Geomyces destructans, a pathogenic invasive fungus from European caves. The fungus invades the skin of bats, creating white patches on their face and wings and keeping them from successfully hibernating in the winter. The devastating result is the worst wildlife disease ever recorded in the United States. The disease has wiped out 95% of the little brown bats in the area where I grew up, and caused a complete population collapse in the Northeastern USA. The disease has since spread throughout the entire eastern half of the USA and Canada.

Several prolific and prominent bat scientists have died in the last couple of years. In 2009, Don Thomas, a leading expert on ecology and physiology of bats passed away. In 2010, James Fullard, the expert on the acoustic warfare in bats and moths, died of cancer. In 2011, the North American Society for Bat Research held a symposium to honor these two men. However, that same year just before the memorial, our community witnessed another death, that of the German bat ecologist Elisabeth Kalko, the prolific “Bat Woman of Panama”, who knew more about bat echolocation and bat ecology in the neotropics than anyone in history. Kalko was still young, energetic, and full of life. It was a shock to everyone.

At the very meeting in Toronto where a memorial service was held for Drs. Thomas, Fullard, and Kalko, there was another tragedy. Tom Kunz, the most prolific bat researcher in the United States, and a leading researcher on white-nose syndrome, suffered a near-fatal injury when he was struck by a car. He was rushed to intensive care and suffered severe brain injury. To say that this meeting was depressing was a bit of an understatement.

Bjorn Siemers was a leading expert on behavioral and sensory ecology of bats, possibly the best young professor studying bat behavior in the world. I was hoping to do a Postdoc with him. Untimely deaths of people and animals you know and love make you stop and think twice about how fleeting life is, how you are spending your last few days on Earth, and whether you are paying enough attention to what’s most important in life.

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