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Bat Crisis: The White-nose Syndrome

New Scientist, August 25, 2008

Wind turbines make bat lungs explode
By Catherine Brahic

"Beware: exploding lungs" is not a sign one would expect to see at a wind farm. But a new study suggests this is the main reason bats die in large numbers around wind turbines.

The risk that wind turbines pose to birds is well known and has dogged debates over wind energy. In fact, several studies have suggested the risk to bats is greater. In May 2007, the US National Research Council published the results of a survey of US wind farms showing that two bat species accounted for 60% of winged animals killed. Migrating birds, meanwhile, appear to steer clear of the turbines.

Why bats - who echolocate moving objects - are killed by turbines has remained a mystery until now. The research council thought the high-frequency noise from the turbines' gears and blades could be disrupting the bats' echolocation systems.

In fact, a new study shows that the moving blades cause a drop in pressure that makes the delicate lungs of bats suddenly expand, bursting the tissue's blood vessels. This is known as a barotrauma, and is well-known to scuba divers.

"While searching for bat carcasses under wind turbines, we noticed that many of the carcasses had no external injuries or no visible cause of death," says Erin Baerwald of the University of Calgary in Canada.

Internal injuries

Baerwald and colleagues collected 188 dead bats from wind farms across southern Alberta, and determined their cause of death. They found that 90% of the bats had signs of internal haemorrhaging, but only half showed any signs of direct contact with the windmill blades. Only 8% had signs of external injuries but no internal injuries.

The movement of wind-turbine blades creates a vortex of lower air pressure around the blade tips similar to the vortex at the tip of aeroplane wings. Others have suggested that this could be lethal to bats, but until now no-one had carried out necropsies to verify the theory.

Baerwald and her colleagues believe that birds do not suffer the same fate as bats - the majority of birds are killed by direct contact with the blades - because their lungs are more rigid than those of bats and therefore more resistant to sudden changes in pressure.

Bats eat nocturnal insects including agricultural pests, so if wind turbines affected their population levels, this could affect the rest of the local ecosystems. And the effects could even be international. "The species being killed are migrants," says Baerwald. "If bats are killed in Canada that could have consequences for ecosystems as far away as Mexico."

Windy day

One solution could be to increase the minimum wind speed needed to set the blades in motion. Most bats are more active in low wind.

The study was funded by a number of bat conservation groups together with energy companies with a financial interest in wind energy, such as Shell Canada and Alberta Wind Energy.

Journal reference: Current Biology (vol 18 p R696)

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