Wednesday, April 30, 2008

'White-Nose Syndrome' and Other Epidemics

Recently I heard a report on NPR's "Science Friday" with Ira Flatow about a mysterious epidemic decimating bat populations throughout the Northeast of the United States. So far the cause of this epidemic, dubbed 'white nose syndrome' for a mysterious white fungus that grows on effected bats noses, is elusive. As scientists try and discover the cause of this massive die-off that was first noticed around two years ago, the sickness continues to spread, threatening more and more bats and posing a serious risk to the species which plays an integral part in our ecosystem.

So far what is known about 'White-Nose Syndrome' is that bats stricken with the disorder either starve to death during hibernation due to a severe depletion of their fat supply, or they wake up from their hibernation hungry and go out of their caves in the dead of winter to try and find food, inevitably dying close to their caves in the cold weather.
This most recently reported epidemic is all the more troublesome because it comes as scientists are trying to grapple with another mysterious epidemic effecting world bee populations. 'Colony Collapse Disorder,' as this epidemic has been called, first appeared, like the epidemic facing bats, around two years ago, and has now spread around the world, possibly as far as Taiwan. The death en masse of bees posses a severe risk to world food supplies, since bees are the primary pollinators of around one-third of U.S. crops.
It is surly premature and purely speculative to connect the inexplicable die-offs of first bees and then bats, yet the similarities of the species - both living in large colonies - their interconnected ecological niches - bats eat many insects related to bees that might also be effected by whatever it is effecting bees - and the mysterious nature of both epidemics, inevitably invite comparison.
The writer/director of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan, is working on a new film called The Happening, about a global environmental disaster survived by Mark Wahlberg and friends. In the movie, the first clue that something is up is an epidemic in bee colonies. It seems that Mr. Shyamalan might have to include yet another strange epidemic in his film to really scare his audience with reality.

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