For Tim Carter, bats may be the most beautiful creatures on the planet.
“I fell in love with bats when I was a sophomore in college,” said Carter, who has been teaching in the biology department since 2006. “To me, they are just fascinating. I am amazed by their ability to fly at night without bumping into things — and just how social they can be.”
Since that fateful day in the mid-1990s when he met his first bat — face to fang — Carter has crawled through caves across the eastern U.S., battled thick vegetation in Costa Rica and gone through barn after barn in Indiana to learn about some of the more than 1,240 species that inhabit this planet.
He has focused on the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) as he examines the effect land management decisions have on endangered species.
“Bats play a major ecological role, consuming tons of insects every night by being nighttime predators,” he said. “U.S. farmers save billions each year by not putting pesticide applications on their plants because bats are eating all the insects. But the real question we are left wondering about is if the loss of bats will cause the number of insects to explode. In some areas of upstate New York where the bats have been wiped out, we have seen an increase in insect populations.”
Fighting a plague
Carter has developed a strong bond with these flying mammals and says there is cause for alarm about their future. During the last decade in the U.S., an estimated 6 million bats have succumbed to white nose syndrome, named for the appearance caused by a fungus that grows on the nose, wings and ears while invading deep skin tissues and causing extensive internal damage. Infected bats wake during winter hibernation, causing them to burn much-needed fat reserves. In the end, most starve to death.
“It is horrible to walk into a cave and find the floor littered with dead bats when the disease hits the area,” he said. “I can’t explain the feeling of seeing several species in North America being wiped out one state at a time, from the East Coast to upper Midwest.”
A promising new treatment
Carter and other biologists are fighting back. He and Maarten Vonhof, a biological sciences faculty member at Western Michigan University, are trying to develop a cure for the disease. The two have been working together since meeting at a conference on bats in 1997, while Carter was a master’s student at the University of Georgia.
In recent years, they’ve studied chitosan, a powerful antibacterial and antifungal liquid with extensive wound-healing properties. Made from a compound found in shrimp and crab shells, it’s nontoxic and biodegradable. Vonhof believes the project may be the first step in fighting white nose syndrome.
“Science is very collaborative, and this is a good example of that,” he said. “We’ve managed to work together, and our latest solution may lead to something. We’ve received two grants, and our tests at UC-Davis showed it had a strong impact on the disease.”
Results in the University of California lab showed that treated bats had less damage from the fungus, more fat reserves and awakened less frequently during hibernation. Carter and Vonhof recently led a team to a cave in Wisconsin to spray chitosan on a group of hibernating bats.
“Chitosan could be a super drug in the fight against white nose syndrome,” Carter said. “We treated the bats with varieties of the compounds and will go back in March to see how many — if any — survived.
“To tell you the truth, I can imagine myself studying bats for the next 50 years. But if we can’t find a cure, many of the bat species in North America could disappear. I could be forced to seek out a new animal for study, but it won’t be like the bats I’ve come to know.”