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Natural pest control under siege

A new threat to one native species could end up pretty costly to Corn Belt agriculture.

Little Brown Bats are native to states like Ohio, and the nocturnal animals are currently besieged by a fungal disease that, if left unchecked, could devastate the species, leaving the crop industry short of one of its greatest natural pest control mechanisms.

"Simply put, bats eat a lot of insects -- insects that bother us around our homes, and insects that can damage crops and forests," says Ohio State University Extension wildlife specialist Marne Titchenell. "It's logical to assume we'll lose a significant amount of the pest-control services that bats provide us as the disease spreads through Ohio and potentially the Midwest."

The culprit is a fungus called Geomyces destructans, which was just discovered in Ohio in March and causes "white-nose syndrome" in infected bats. It's named for the growth of white, fuzzy substance that envelopes the nose and face and ultimately causes death in 90% to 100% of the infected animals. Humans, however, are at no risk of infection from white-nose syndrome.

To date, more than 1 million bats in 16 states in the U.S. (and 3 Canadian provinces) have been killed. And, in an agricultural state like Ohio, those kinds of losses could be big to the ag economy. Recent Ohio State University estimates show a widespread infection in the state's bat population could cause as much as $1.7 million in damage to the state's crops. The state's most crop-rich counties, like in the western and northwestern parts of Ohio, could potenttially see losses of $18 to $23 million per county per year.

"Bats are among the most overlooked, yet economically important, nondomesticated animals in North America and their conservation is important for the integrity of ecosystems and in the best interest of both national and international economies," according to a recent Ohio State University Extension study.

"(White-nose syndrome's) spread to Ohio was inevitable, and it's possibly the worst wildlife disease seen in many years due to its high mortality rates and rapid spread," Titchenell adds. "Because bats reproduce only once a year and most have only one or two offspring at a time, populations of bats infected by white-nose syndrome won't recover quickly."

The indigenous bat population in the U.S. is typically thought to be valued at $3.7 to $53 billion to the nation's agricultural economy, though those numbers are mostly based on southern parts of the country. "Until there's a similar study that extrapolates corn and soybean figures, we won’t know for sure," Titchenell says of the potential economic losses in the Corn Belt.

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