Bat experts from 32 European countries have met in Prague to discuss the state of Europe's bat population, which is under increasing threat from human activity and a mysterious new fungus.
Scientists are concerned about the bat's future
The bat is the only mammal that can fly - and it is Europe's sole natural nocturnal insect-eating predator.
If the bat population did not eat millions of insects each night, this would have serious consequences for crops and would probably lead to increased use of chemical pesticides.
However, European bats are in danger, partly due to a fungus that thrives in cold temperatures and that has already killed millions of bats in North America.
Commonly known as white-nose syndrome, the fungus belongs to the Geomyces family and typically grows on the bats' snouts and wings during winter hibernation. Afflicted bats wake frequently and try to remove the fungus.
While doing so they lose vital fat stores and usually starve to death before spring.
The fungus is one of the issues being discussed at this year's conference of parties to the UN's Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats (EUROBATS) in Prague.
"Some species are threatened with extinction in North America," said Professor Paul Racey from the Bat Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"We are very concerned to prevent that fungal organism from reaching Europe and causing the same sort of devastation among our bat populations here."
Bats are sensitive to environmental changes
Useful but vulnerable
Racey is among around one hundred delegates attending the EUROBATS. His colleague Tony Hutson believes that bats provide a useful clue as to the overall health of the environment.
"They have certain aspects of their biology that make them quite vulnerable to human pressures and changes in climate and landscape," said Hutson.
"So we should be using them to monitor the health of the environment and associated changes."
Bats in Europe also face problems caused by human activity.
More efficient heating insulation in buildings, for example, often deprives bats of valuable room to roost. Andreas Streit, Executive Secretary of EUROBATS, says he and his colleagues are trying to come up with compromise solutions that guarantee both human comfort and bat health.
"There's no conflict between bat conservation and building renovation and construction work," said Streit. "So wherever problems occur, compromise can be found relatively easily. It's just important that everyone involved is aware of this."
A substantial reduction in the bat population would have serious consequences for humanity. They are, say the experts, very much worth protecting.
Author: Rob Cameron
Editor: Nathan Witkop