Category Archives: White-nose syndrome

Habitat partnership bats a thousand in Pennsylvania

Today we’re sharing the hard work of Tom and Wendy Belinda, who have dedicated themselves to conserving habitat for endangered Indiana Bats on their land in Blair County, Pennsylvania. White-nose syndrome, human disturbance, and habitat loss have caused our nation’s bat populations to plummet. Close proximity to places where bats roost and hibernate makes the Belindas’ property prime real estate for bat conservation in Pennsylvania.

Indiana Bats

Credit: Ann Froscheaur/USFWS

Working with federal agencies like the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and local partners, has allowed the Belindas to manage their property for the benefit of Indiana Bats and other vulnerable species. However, enhancing the health of their forests not only improves wildlife habitat, it also boosts the value and productivity of their land. A true win-win.

Check out our bat story map to learn more about the nationwide effort to conserve bats.

For more information about white-nose syndrome, visit www.whitenosesyndrome.org.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Winter has arrived in the Northeast and snow is in the forecast. While we are piling on the cozy layers and feasting on soup and hot chocolate, outside temperatures are dropping and food for wildlife is getting scarce. Animals across the region are tackling the season head-on and have some impressive strategies to cope with winter conditions.

In the winter, snowshoe hares completely transform, their fur changing from brown to white for better camouflage in the snow. They spend their time eating and hiding which helps to conserve energy for their encounters with predators, such as the lynx. Further south, the New England cottontail uses its brown coat to blend into thick underbrush, and uses snow as a ladder to reach higher shoots, seedlings and twigs.

Have you ever wondered where amphibians and reptiles go in the winter? Most frogs, turtles, and snakes dramatically decrease their activity and enter a state of brumation, or dormancy, where their temperature drops and the heart rate slows down dramatically. Many turtles will bury themselves in mud at the bottom of a pond and absorb oxygen through their skin from the surrounding water. Wood frogs are even capable of freezing solid under leaves in forested areas. They are able to do this by filling their cells with a sugary substance that acts like antifreeze. The frog’s heartbeat stops and stays dormant all winter until they thaw again in spring!

A piping plover and chick by Kaiti Titherington/USFWS

For many birds, the cold is just too much to bear. Like many of us in the winter, migrating birds including the piping plover, leave their homes on the chilly northern coast and take a vacation down south to the warmer shorelines and sandy beaches. Most piping plover are already in their vacation nests by mid-September and come back to work (and mate) by mid-April. Bird migrations vary in length, but some range from hundreds to thousands of miles each year.

An American black bear in a tree. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS

If long distance migration isn’t your thing, why not just sleep through winter like the American black bear? Bears aren’t true hibernators, but they can doze for up to 100 days at a time by slowing their metabolism and dropping their core temperature. Bears usually put on fifteen pounds a week during the fall to prepare for their long nap and stretch without food.

As Andrew King took this shot, an Indiana bat flew beneath a large hibernating cluster of Indiana bats on the ceiling of Ray’s Cave, IN (taken pre-white nose syndrome.)

The Indiana bat, a true hibernator, accumulates layers of fat and spends months tucked away in its hibernaculum, like a cave or mine. Throughout winter, bats periodically rouse to move between hibernacula, before their heart rate and body temperature is dramatically lowered to conserve energy. Sadly, white-nose syndrome is plaguing bat hibernacula and causing populations of bats to plummet. Learn more about white-nose syndrome here.

A ruffed grouse in the snow by Head Harbor Lightstation/ Creative Commons

Ruffed grouse are non-migratory birds. They stick out the winters in their usual homes in a protected thicket or burrowed in the snow.  In the late fall, feathers begin to grow on their legs to protect from the cold and help conserve body heat. Pectinations (fleshy comb-like projections along their toes) help them walk on soft snow, roost and burrow. Down feathers allow birds to trap air against their body to stay warm, and many birds will even cuddle together to keep warm.

Swallows cuddle up to keep warm. Photo by Keith Williams/ Creative Commons

We can learn a thing or two from wildlife this winter. Cuddling, sleeping, or vacationing through winter doesn’t sound half bad, especially if you’re not a fan of winter weather!

Is the coast clear for tricolored bats?

Tricolored bat with visible symptoms of WNS from Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia. Photo credit: National Park Service

This winter two scientists will set out to learn  whether tricolored bats that use winter roosts other than caves and mines are susceptible to a deadly bat disease in the coastal plains and forests of North and South Carolina — two of 38 states in the bats’ range.

In the winter of 2016, Dr. Susan Loeb of the U.S. Forest Service and Clemson University and Assistant Professor David Jachowski of Clemson did a pilot study of tricolored bats roosting under two bridges in the upper coastal plain of South Carolina. They found that some bats left the bridge for several days and returned, suggesting that they were using alternate roosts. However, because the researchers did not track bats to these roosts, where the bats were going was unknown.

Now the researchers are expanding their study to find out what alternative roosting sites tricolored bats use and if the behavior of bats and environmental conditions there can protect them from the disease white-nose syndrome (WNS).

WNS, caused by the fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd, was discovered in New York State in 2007. Now confirmed in 31 states and 5 Canadian provinces, the disease has wiped out some populations of several hibernating bat species, including tricolored bats. At hibernation sites where white-nose syndrome has affected tricolored bats, average overall declines of these bats have been more than 75 percent. As observed by Loeb, these declines have been even higher at some sites in the south.

In their pilot study, Loeb and Jachowski discovered that what sets coastal plain habitats apart is a striking potential difference in temperature tricolored bats encounter at more exposed and warmer sites than at mine and cave habitats.

Temperature is critical to the spread of the WNS fungus because any body temperatures above 64 degrees Fahrenheit might mean a greater chance for the bat’s immune system to fight the fungus over the winter, Loeb said.

She said, however, that such sites might be a double-edged sword. If body temperature remains high, a bat will be less able to enter an extended state of torpor, a short form of hibernation that can last only for a few days. Possibly because of the warmer climate, the coastal plains populations of tricolored  bats might only hibernate on a daily basis to conserve energy.

If bats are able to escape WNS in these alternative habitats but remain more active due to higher outside temperatures, they must forage to survive. Finding available insects in the winter, even in the Carolinas’ warmer coastal plains, might be challenging for the beleaguered bats.

Now, with  $125,925 funding from an FWS research grant, Loeb and Jachowski plan to expand their search for the bat’s winter habitat under bridges and in trees across the coastal plains of the Carolinas. They will be joining the ranks of other FWS-funded researchers such as Dr. Jeremy White in Nebraska and State Biologist Cory Mosby in Maine who have turned their attention to small bat hibernation habitats other than caves and mines.

“The decline of tricolored bats in the southeast is concerning. When the disease first arrived in the region, researchers expected it to not be as bad because the bats could forage.  In some populations, we are seeing 90% declines.” – Susan Loeb

To measure body temperature and foraging, Loeb and Jachowski’s team will outfit temperature-sensitive radio transmitters on the bats at their winter roosts to document body temperatures and activity levels. They will use the transmitters to track bats to what might be an array of winter roosting types in this area free of caves and mines.

When the researchers capture the bats, they will swab and inspect them for the fungus and record data about the roost, such as tree height and cavity depth that might affect temperature. They will also collect fecal samples at the roost site and from the bats to determine whether the bats forage in winter.

Loeb said the study will contribute to a better understanding of bats’ susceptibility to WNS in the southeastern U.S. When the disease was first documented, researchers had hoped the region would host roosts that would be warmer than the northeastern caves and mines where the disease was first found, suggesting that the fungus would not spread to areas where wintering bats’ body temperatures would be higher than the critical 64-degree Fahrenheit threshold. In years since, however, researchers have found that even caves and mines in the southeast are cold enough to allow Pd to thrive.

“The decline of tricolored bats in the southeast is concerning,” Loeb added. “When the disease first arrived in the region, researchers expected it to not be as bad because the bats could forage.  In some populations, we are seeing 90% declines.”

Now with exploration of alternative roosts in the southeast, scientists hope some tricolored bat populations might survive if they can find warm roosts and insects to eat during lean winter months. And in the race to help bats survive WNS, hope is a good place to start.