The Indiana Bat

The Indiana Bat

In Wild Hope: Stories for Lent from the Vanishing, Gayle Boss describes animal lives imperiled by human lives. This story of the Indiana bat portrays the force of resurrection-within-suffering embedded in creation.

Through thick layers of absolute sleep she feels heat rising in the body pressed tightly against her left side. Her right side too warms with the warming of the body pressed there. Pressed against her chest, another body seeps heat to hers just as the one behind her warms. Soon these bodies—and hundreds more—are rustling. Hers, with the help of her neighbors’, heats, and her heart, with theirs, quickens—forty, ninety, two hundred, six hundred beats each minute. In just an hour every cell in her has surged from nearly dead to urgently alive. She snaps open her wings and falls into the swirl of tiny furred bodies flapping through the cave.

It is a communal resurrection. And in a healthy colony of Indiana bats it happens every thirteen days or so for the six months of their hibernation. Near-death sleep mightily strains the body. When circulation slows to a trickle, toxins collect, tissues begin to sicken. At the brink of harm, an internal alarm rouses each and all. They wake and fly, flushing the toxins from their systems. After about an hour of freshening, they regather, toes grabbing the cave’s nubbled ceiling. They fold their wings and scooch together, four hundred upside-down bodies squeezed into each square foot. As one body, they close their eyes and surrender again to the slowing that will save them until the world outside warms.

They slow so dangerously near death because they trust the group-body. And because they trust this cave…. Long, high, many-entranced, the cave’s architecture keeps its temperature between thirty-seven and forty-five degrees Fahrenheit…. The weight of three pennies in a palm, each Indiana bat arrives with just enough body fat to survive six months of communal hibernation. If the air were warmer, their group sleep would not be as deep, its faster metabolism using up body fat. If the air were cooler or drier, they would sleep more deeply but wake more often to flush toxins, using up body fat. This cave holds them perfectly poised in a sleep neither too shallow nor too deep, so their fat stores will last until spring supplies insects to eat.

Humans too flock to these exceptional caves... When flushed from their winter refuges, bat colonies freeze or starve. Ten million Indiana bats once sheltered in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave; now four hundred thousand sightseers tour it every year. In 1967, there were so few of the species that it was one of the first listed in the Endangered Species Protection Act. Four decades of protection later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Indiana bat had a “high recovery potential.”

Then in February 2006, in a cave adjoining tourist caverns near Albany, New York, a spelunker photographed hibernating bats whose noses were oddly chalked with a white powder. The following winter state biologists found several hundred bats dead in four caves nearby, their noses powdered white. Within ten years, seven million bats of nine species had died in thirty-one states. Biologists named the plague “white-nose syndrome.”

The very places Indiana bats trusted to preserve them betrayed them. Cool, dark, and humid, cave air not only holds bats in metabolic equipoise, it also invigorates a fungus new to North America. Brought from Europe on spelunkers’ gear, spores of the fungus multiplied rampantly in caves of northeastern states, then spread farther and faster on the bodies of bats. The tightly packed group-body that Indiana bats trusted to heat them and hold them through winter contaminated them.

When spores of the fungus stick to her body, a hibernating bat becomes a furred petri dish. The fungus grows most densely on her nose. But it invades at her most vulnerable portal. Eighty-five percent of her body’s surface, a bat’s wings are exquisitely laced with blood and lymph vessels, nerves, glands, muscle, and connective tissue. … The fungus simply devours every sort of cell in them. The winged jazz she is collapses into a jumble.

The biologist who has been watching this cave finds her outside in the middle of a February day. She is wing-walking feebly across the snow. She stops and licks up a few flakes. He takes her in his palm, touches her tiny white nose. Her wing membrane looks like crumpled tissue paper. It sticks to his finger. Emaciated and dazed, she doesn’t resist when he puts her in a box to take back to his lab, where he knows she will die within hours. Inside the cave he finds others of her colony flying crazily near the entrance. Eating their wings, the fungus is short-circuiting their metabolismÖ He will soon be scooping them into his box too.

All the autopsies on the two-inch bodies tell the same story. Scientists believe the bats’ best hope rests within the bats themselves. Their European cousins, over time, developed immunity to white-nose syndrome. Biologists are seeing signs of another sort of life-restoring force in Indiana bats. Some remnant populations, rather than waking once every thirteen nights of their hibernation, are rousing each night—briefly, without burning much fat. Warming together more often, the colony keeps the cold-loving plague at bay. Though it seemed to destroy them, the bats have found deep within the group-body a force that answers death with resurrection.

By Gayle Boss

Read Wild Hope: Stories for Lent from the Vanishing

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