Monday, Jan. 23 was the Chinese New Year, start of the “Year of the Dragon.” Did you know that right now we are also in the “Year of the Bat?”
The United Nations declared 2011-12 as the “International Year of the Bat.” Bats are in the conservation spotlight right now because entire populations, even entire species, are threatened with potential extinction. The disease known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS) causes cave-dwelling bats to die from exposure this time of year. The disease is caused by a fungus that grows only in cold conditions; it damages bat skin, causing them to burn up their energy reserves, so they move out to look for insects-and die of exposure. Natural resource agencies are scrambling to document current, healthy bat populations while cautiously on the lookout for diseased bats. To date, no infected populations have been found here, but with confirmed occurrences to the north (in Ontario) and south (in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee), it is only a matter of time before it arrives.
This may well be the first time in documented history that we see a mass extinction of this magnitude. We have lost an estimated 5 to 7 million bats since the disease was first detected in New York in 2006. In the last two years, we have employed state-of-the-art technology to try to get a handle on our current bat population. The Anabat records bat calls, giving us species identification and a GPS location for each bat recorded. This will hopefully get us a baseline of bat population density and species composition before the disease gets here.
Another wildlife disease that stole the spotlight a couple years back was Avian Influenza, or bird flu. It was all over the news, there was a scary movie made about it, and Wisconsin DNR joined an international effort to search for it in wild birds. We were monitoring out of concern for the health of our human and bird populations. We were all trained on dead or dying bird collection, bought equipment and gear, and then…nothing happened. We tested for bird flu through 2010 as part of the federally funded national detection effort, finding no occurrences.
I was truly concerned, and took precautions (see ready.gov). I am a biologist, after all-I see first hand what effects illnesses have on individuals and populations. And I know that bird flu, even in its less transmissible form, is terribly deadly. In the few hundred cases of transmission to humans around the world, the death rate is 60 percent. The worst case scenario would be to have it mutate to a highly pathogenic H5N1 form, where it could be transmitted through the air…the mortality rate would far exceed 60 percent of infected individuals.
Imagine my surprise when I read in a recent Time Magazine article that researchers have been working on intentionally creating a highly pathogenic airborne avian influenza. Furthermore, one of the scientists working on this task is with the University of Wisconsin. According to a January 20, 2012 article by Alice Park on healthland.time.com, a UW researcher was one of two who reported that they have successfully manipulated H5N1 to make it more virulent. The virus we hoped would never appear has been created and successfully tested on ferrets.
The findings on how to make this highly pathogenic flu were supposed to be published soon, but amid concerns that this information could be used in a bioterrorist attack, they have agreed to wait 60 days.
The debate occurs between scientists who claim this is important, ground-breaking research that is crucial for immunization of the disease, and scientists who feel it is irresponsible to intentionally create our own worst case scenario and publish the recipe. Either way, the disease now exists, and time will reveal the consequences. Pandemic or not, thousands of people die from the flu each year-you should always take precautions and be prepared.
For the sake of comparison, check out past flu pandemics. The worst was the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Approximately 20 to 40 percent of the world’s population became ill. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide, 675,000 in the United States. More recently, the 2009 swine flu killed less than 20,000. (source: flu.gov/pandemic/history/).
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.