“What is Killing the Bats?”

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The Story

“What is Killing the Bats?”
by Michelle Nijhuis
Smithsonian, August 2011

The Pitch

[In an interview at The Open Notebook, Nijhuis explains how she pitched this story:

After doing some background research and speaking with caver and microbiologist Hazel Barton], I spoke with my editor, Laura Helmuth. I pitched it as a story about Hazel’s work to contain white nose syndrome and keep it out of Kentucky. Laura was really important and helpful to the development of the pitch, suggesting several elements that would make it a better fit for the magazine. For instance, Hazel was doing work throughout Kentucky, including in Mammoth Cave, and Laura thought the story would be more likely to get final approval, and be more relatable for readers, if we could describe Hazel at work in that iconic place. That turned out to be the tricky part; I ended up having to spend an entire year just waiting for Hazel to go to Mammoth Cave. Every six weeks or so I would call her and say “So, heading to Mammoth Cave anytime soon?” and she would be in another part of Kentucky, or in China, or New Mexico. I knew that white-nose syndrome wasn’t going anywhere, unfortunately, and I thought Hazel was worth waiting for. So I just turned to other projects, and kept calling.]

In the early spring of 2007, in a long, narrow, limestone cave near Albany, New York, a team of wildlife biologists discovered a disaster. Instead of the rows of peacefully hibernating bats they had expected, they found thousands of dead bats, with thousands more sick and struggling for survival. The bats, it was later discovered, were suffering from a previously unknown fungal infection, one that attacked bat muzzles, ears and wings. The infection seemed to so disturb hibernating bats that they burned up their fat reserves, making it impossible for them to survive the winter. The disease, dubbed white-nose syndrome, moved quickly: Biologists found that it killed up to 97 percent of the bats in affected caves, and by this past summer, the disease had spread to nine Northeastern states. With more than half the bat species in the United States at risk, including four endangered species, biologists fear white-nose syndrome will trigger the largest mammalian extinction event in recent history.

Dr. Hazel Barton, a professor at Northern Kentucky University, is one of a small group of experts working overtime to stop the spread of white-nose syndrome. Barton, a young researcher
whose accent belies both her British upbringing and her southern home, is gregarious, irreverent, and so dedicated to caving that she has a map of South Dakota’s Wind Cave tattooed on her bicep. During her underground adventures, she studies the numerous and almost entirely unknown microbes that live in caves around the world; she and her team have discovered a microbe that can break down contaminants used in plastic manufacturing, and antibiotic-producing microorganisms that could tackle multi-drug resistant strains of bacteria.

With the outbreak of white-nose syndrome, Barton’s esoteric skills are being put to immediate and very practical use. “There aren’t that many researchers who do cave microbiology, and there are even fewer who do research in the kind of caves this fungus likes to live in,” she says. Kentucky is considered extremely vulnerable to invasion by white-nose — it may be only a matter of time before the disease hits the iconic Mammoth Cave National Park — so Barton and her students are deep in the caves of her home state, trying to understand how both humans and bats contribute to the spread of the disease. In cooperation with wildlife officials, Barton is also developing protocols that cavers and tourists will use to disinfect clothing and equipment — cleaning routines designed to stop the disease without affecting other cave life. Her work, she hopes, will help contain the disease and protect countless bats in the United States and beyond.

I think Barton would serve as a charming central character in this story, and her work is a genuinely hopeful angle on an otherwise gloomy but crucial subject. She’s invited me to accompany her and her team as they continue their work in Kentucky this year.

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