Haunted haven for bats

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

When the world turns orange and red and the cold winds begin to howl, an ominous chill ushers in the Halloween season.

What is it about October that gets us just a little more spooked?

Is it the devilish expression that glows from the jack-o’-lanterns at dusk? Or the way that a bump in the night sounds more like a poltergeist than a raccoon getting into the trash?

As the daylight hours become shorter, and the cloak of night grows, I can’t help but wonder:

What’s really lurking in the dark?

My superstitious nature makes me think that it could be ghosts. The naturalist in me thinks it’s probably bats.

At historic Fort Delaware, it’s both.

Constructed in 1859, Fort Delaware has been called one of the most haunted places in the world.

Located outside of Wilmington, in the middle of the Delaware River, it once housed as many as 12,595 Confederate prisoners of war, of whom about 2,500 spent their final days imprisoned here.

Popular with paranormal enthusiasts, strange noises and mysterious apparitions color this historic site. Visitors have claimed to hear the soldiers’ voices and footsteps sneaking through the halls.

Here, bats and ghosts live side by side, hiding in the damp, dark nooks and crannies that this Civil War era former prison camp offers them as shelter.

Bats wedge in between bricks in Fort Delaware’s walls. Credit: DE Division of Fish & Wildlife

However, something else spooky but far more sinister is also lurking at Fort Delaware — white-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome is a disease that affects hibernating bats and is caused by a fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short. Sometimes Pdlooks like a white fuzz on bats’ faces, which is how the disease got its name. The fungus grows in cold, dark and damp places and attacks bats while they’re hibernating. As it grows, Pd causes changes in bats that makes them become more active than usual and burn up fat they need to survive the winter.

White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats throughout the northeast and beyond since 2007, making any place that continues to house bats, including Fort Delaware, critical to the fight against WNS.

Biologists from Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Fish & Wildlife are hard at work to prevent the spread of WNS and study the bats that hibernate at Fort Delaware every winter.

Supported by federal grant funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, biologists are persevering to protect bats through research and education.

Combining natural and American history, the Division of Fish & Wildlife has collaborated with DNREC’s Division of Parks & Recreation to provide Fort Delaware State Park visitors with a unique experience that covers both bat conservation and the history of the fort.

“Visitors for the ghost tours are well aware of the bats lurking in dark places and I imagine it adds to their spooky experience,” said Holly Niederriter, Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife biologist.

This team has also worked to design and implement protocols to prevent the spread of WNS from Fort Delaware.

Their research has informed the timing of seasonal ghost tours that conclude in late October to prevent disturbance to hibernating bats.

“The bat program at the fort has reached thousands of people to teach them about the impacts of WNS, the importance of bats and what they can do to help bats,” said Niederriter. “Far beyond the boundaries of the Fort — throughout the state — the federal grants have funded critical surveys, monitoring and protection efforts.”

A Haunting in Connecticut

Further north, another former prison with a storied past has become a haven for bats.

Prisoners of the oldest surviving state prison in the nation spent their nights underground in the tunnels of the first operating copper mine in the North American colonies.

When it was still an operating prison, more than 800 prisoners were incarcerated over a period of 54 years, starting in 1773 and ending in 1827, when the state decided it was costly and inhumane.

Water dripped constantly from the surrounding rock and prisoners wrote that “armies of fleas, lice, and bedbugs covered every inch of the floor,” which itself was covered in “five inches of slippery, stinking filth.”

Nowadays, bats are the only inhabitants of Old New-Gate Prison (potential ghostly roommates aside).

Little brown, tri-colored and northern long-eared bats have all used the copper mine to hibernate during the winter months.

In recent years, less than a dozen bats over-winter in the prison. Connecticut was hit hard by WNS and these low numbers are consistent throughout the state.

“The counts at all of our sites are small since WNS arrived,” said Jenny Dickson, wildlife biologist with Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “For us, any number of bats still found in hibernacula is good news.”

Recently, grant funding from the Service was used to improve a gate in place at the mine to protect the bats from being disturbed while they are hibernating. The existing gate at the site was updated to allow bats to enter the mine more easily, and more cool air to flow in as well.

Every time a bat is woken up during hibernation it has the potential to burn as much as ten days worth of stored body fat. When that happens multiple times over the winter, the chances of surviving until spring are greatly reduced.

“Not only does the new design allow bats to enter and exit the mine more easily, it also helps protect an important historic site,” Dickson said.

Now open as a museum and preserved as a national landmark, tours and events are hosted for curious visitors. CT DEEP and the Department of Economic and Community Development, are strong advocates for their resident bats and work together to bring programs about bat conservation to the public.

“This partnership has allowed many people, who may not know much about bats or their current battle with white-nose syndrome, to learn how important they are to our everyday life and how they can help our conservation efforts,” Dickson added.

These projects were supported by federal grant funding from the White-nose Syndrome Grant program, State Wildlife Grant program, and the Wildlife Restoration Grant Program provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program. These programs help to support important conservation initiatives throughout the Northeast region.

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