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Artist's conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

Artist’s conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

More dramatic news from the far reaches of the solar system: NASA’s probe New Horizons has awakened from its nine year hibernation and is powering up to approach Pluto!  Although it sounds like “New Horizons” is a boy band, NASA gave up on trying to launch every saccharine teenybopper act into the Kuiper belt (although that is a laudable goal): instead the probe is named after the fact that New Horizons is the first human spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet Pluto and its little moons Charon and Hydra. Launched in January of 2006, New Horizons set the record for the highest launch speed of a human-made object from Earth.  The grand piano-sized spacecraft has spent the intervening years hurtling through the darkness of space–although it has periodically come to partial wakefulness to check in with mission control and to snap some dramatic flyby photos of famous locations along its trip (like this photo montage of Jupiter and Io).  The craft also used Jupiter’s gravity well to increase its velocity.

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Since the time the probe was launched, astronomers have discovered two new miniature moons of Pluto: Kerberus and Styx.  This means that New Horizons mission planners were forced to assess the possibility of a catastrophic collision with unseen debris or dust left over from these satellites. Computer models suggest that the likelihood of such an accident is remote, but, just in case, NASA has added two dramatic contingency plans for the mission. In one emergency plan, the probe’s satellite dish acts as a dust shield, in the other, the craft drops dangerously close to Pluto, where atmospheric drag has presumably cleared the surrounding space of particles.  These worst case plans will almost certainly not be needed, although we will learn more as New Horizons gets closer to the dwarf planet.

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After flying past Pluto next July, New Horizons will hurtle into the Kuiper belt where NASA hopes the probe will rendezvous with an icy Kuiper belt object so that we can learn more about these enigmatic leftovers from the creation of the solar system.  The coming 7 months should be filled with excitement as we learn more about the Pluto system!
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One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world.  If one writes about the many sad or perplexing  issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world?  I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled.  Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party.  Sigh….

All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats.  Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus.  Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent.   If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble

The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome.  Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America.  Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators).  As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces.  The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state.  The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.

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Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves).  Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact.  European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion.  Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died.  As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected.  Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west.   Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus).  Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies.  Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.

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I personally love bats.  I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits).  Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat).  A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.

This attitude is a big mistake.

Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening.  Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests.  Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.

Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine.   Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests).   Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss).  So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money!  Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus.  Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this).  Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone.  Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry:  the effect of a bat die off could be worse.  But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us.  If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.

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