Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Vanishing Bats

Today on NPR I heard a story about how the most common species of bat in North America seems to be on the path to extinction due a fungal disease called White Nose Syndrome. As hundreds of thousands of bats die, bat scientists are calling "crisis!" and starting to mount efforts to prevent extinction.

Part of the story also noted how bats perform a tremendous service to farmers as insecticides, and hinted that extinction would be a catastrophe for the ecosystem. For now, the report said, conservation biologists are carefully monitoring the situation.

Now if White Nose Syndrome is caused by humans (and that's a big if), then I would understand the cause for alarm. But that's not what was being talked about; instead, the report focused on how the decline of bats is a calamity in and of itself.

As someone with minimal experience in ecology, I may be wrong on this, but I feel this approach is misguided. It seems that if an event (including extinction) happens automatically in nature, then it is helpful rather than harmful, and ultimately works for the benefit of the system. After all the Earth has been sustaining life for hundreds of millions of years and has been doing just fine without our help. Just because we are now marginally aware of the complex ecology around us does not mean that we need to correct for perceived "imbalances," especially when these corrections can lead to real imbalances of their own.

Of course, this entire argument is contingent on whether White Nose Syndrome is caused by humans or not. And there very well may be other facts to bear in mind. Nonetheless, I sense that we environmentalists have a knee-jerk reaction for preserving species diversity—and I want to suggest that this may not be a good thing.

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