‘One Strange Rock’ shows the benefits of bat poop

What do giant fruit bats have in common with Johnny Appleseed? Tonight’s episode of “One Strange Rock,” National Geographic Channel’s documentary series about the interconnectedness of Earth’s ecosystems, provides an answer that’ll awe the grossologist in your family.

During each rainy season, between October and December, up to 10 million of the bats — also known as flying foxes — converge on Zambia’s Kasanka National Park from all over Africa.

“It’s the largest mammal migration on Earth,” conservationist Frank Willems says in National Geographic’s video clip, available via GeekWire as an exclusive preview for tonight’s show. “They fly out in every direction, covering an area of 10,000 square miles.”

The bats gorge themselves on the waterberries, mangoes, musuku fruit and red milkwood berries hanging from the park’s trees, eating enough to equal half of their body weight each night.

As the bats fly back and forth, the fruit and the seeds pass through their digestive system — and yes, National Geographic shows that part of the process, using what appears to be an internal gut-cam. Then the seeds come out the other end and drop to the forest floor.

“The seeds might end up in a completely different place where a new tree can then grow,” Willems says. “We are looking at literally billions of seeds flying all over the continent.”

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It’s a bat! It’s a plane! It’s Bat Bot!

Bat Bot
Bat Bot begins. (Ramezani et al. / Caltech / UIUC via Science Robotics)

Holy drone, Batman! Scientists have created a robotic drone with soft, flapping wings that looks and flies like a ghostly bat.

The Bat Bot project, conducted by researchers at Caltech and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, may sound like a Halloween prank gone wild. But there’s a serious point behind the spookiness.

“This robot design will help us build safer and more efficient flying robots, and also give us more insight into the way bats fly,” Soon-Jo Chung, an aerospace professor at Caltech as well as a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release.

A research paper describing the project was published online today by the journal Science Robotics.

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Bat-killing disease jumped from East to West

Image: Infected bats
Bats show signs of white nose syndrome. (Credit: Kim Miller / USGS)

Genetic analysis has shown that the first West Coast case of white nose syndrome, a disease that’s killing millions of bats across America, was probably caused by a fungal strain that came from the eastern U.S. rather than from across the Pacific.

The findings, published today in the journal mSphere, resolve part of the mystery surrounding the case, which was reported in March in King County near North Bend, Wash. They also have implications for battling the spread of the disease.

White nose syndrome is caused by a fungus known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short. The fungus grows on the nose, wings and ears of infected bats during winter hibernation, giving them a white, fuzzy appearance. When Pd invades the skin tissue, it causes extensive internal damage, disrupting hibernation and causing mass deaths.

The disease has been detected in 25 states and five Canadian provinces, but the Washington case is the only one that’s been confirmed west of the Rockies.

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Bat-killing disease make the leap to the West

Image: Afflicted bat
This little brown bat with white nose syndrome was found near North Bend, Wash. (Credit: PAWS)

Researchers are dismayed by the first-ever case of the bat-killing disease known as white nose syndrome in Washington state, more than 1,000 miles west of where it’s been detected before.

The illness is linked to a fungus that’s primarily spread from bat to bat, but the fungus can also be transmitted via the shoes, clothes and gear of cave visitors.

Although it’s not harmful to humans, pets, livestock or most wildlife, the fungus is devastating for the bats. White nose syndrome has killed more than 6 million bats in North America since it was first documented nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

White nose syndrome was first detected in New York, and until now, it was thought to have spread only as far west as Nebraska.

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