Tag Archives: bat conservation

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.

Bat to the Future

A 100-year-old bat specimen housed at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. may help scientists unravel the mystery behind white-nose syndrome, a disease that has devastated North American bat populations.

Myotis bechsteinii. Photo by Sam Dyer Ecology.

Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution, University of New Hampshire, Bucknell University, and the University of Adelaide in Australia used DNA analysis to detect Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome (WNS), on a Bechstein’s bat (Myotis bechsteinii) collected on May 9, 1918 in Forêt de Russy, Centre-Val de Loire, France. The discovery supports the presence of WNS in Europe and Asia more than 100 years ago and shows how ancient specimens can inform modern day research.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s biological collections (25 million specimens) preserved in fluids, such as alcohol and formalin, and informally known as the “wet collections.” The facility has the latest technology for the safe use of flammable liquids.

Dr. Michael Campana, a computational genomics scientist at the Smithsonian Institution Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics, said archived museum collections are critical for studying emerging diseases like white-nose syndrome. As a computational genomics scientist, Campana uses computational and statistical analysis to decipher biology from genome sequences and related data. Campana’s colleague, Carly Muletz-Wolz, also used museum specimens to investigate the historical prevalence of the fungal pathogens Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and B. salamandrivorans in amphibians, information that has conservation plan implications.

“Without archived specimens from the past, the evolutionary history of an animal or pathogen is inferred, but not confirmed,” Campana said. “Without archived specimens, the genomic history is inferred from limited modern data, limitations that may cause incorrect inferences. By seeing a pathogen’s genetics from the past, you can more accurately infer its evolutionary history.”

Named for the white fungus that is visible primarily on the muzzle of the bat, WNS was first documented in North America during the winter of 2006 in New York state. To date, the disease has killed more than 6 million bats in 31 states and 5 provinces. In the winter months, bats carefully and precisely measure their energy expenditure to survive until spring. Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and U.S. Geological Survey have hypothesized that P. destructans kills bats by increasing the amount of energy they use during hibernation, thereby inhibiting normal physiological functions.

White-nose syndrome occurrence map as of August 2017. Map provided by white-nosesyndrome.org, A Coordinated Response to the Devastating Bat Disease.

Campana said genetic studies of present day bat specimens and historic samples both inform effective conservation by comparing genetic differences leading to adaptations. Currently, WNS is occurring in multiple bat populations in Europe and Asia, yet the bat populations are not declining as seen in WNS-infected populations in North America. This indicates the presence of disease tolerance mechanisms, whereby the bat host limits the harmful effects of WNS, but does not eliminate the presence of the fungus. The ability of Eurasian bats to survive in the presence of WNS is evidence of a natural, evolutionary adaptation, that can most likely be found in immunity genes.

Little Brown Bat infected with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, VT. Photo by Marvin Moriarty, USFWS.

Dr. Jonathan Reichard, WNS National Assistant Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the discovery has implications for WNS research in North America.

“The ability of Eurasian bat populations to coexist with WNS suggests adaptive evolution with a possible genetic underpinning for survival,” Reichard says. “We hope that North American bats have the capacity to reach similar equilibrium to survive with the disease.”

Currently, some bats in North America are surviving with WNS while others seem to not contract the disease, but the specific factors leading to their survival are still being investigated.

“If the ability to survive with WNS is from a genetic adaptation that is heritable, North American bats could experience an evolutionary bottleneck and return to a stable or recovering population,” Reichard says. “Work by Dr. Campana and colleagues will help us investigate patterns of resistance and persistence that we are observing both between species and within species in North America. This understanding is critical for focusing our management and research efforts.”  

Click here to read the “White-Nose Syndrome Fungus in a 1918 Bat Specimen from France” research letter.

 

Taking Conservation Underground

Taking a deep breath of the crisp winter air, I secured my helmet and switched on my headlamp. Slowly I made my way downslope, following a single-file line of biologists. The sunlight dimmed behind me until my field of vision narrowed to the small spec of light from my headlamp. There was a noticeable change in the air. It’s not as cold down here! Above me are tiny sleeping bats tucked away for the winter in the corners of walls and in high crevices.

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State and federal biologists drag their gear in a canoe, which is used to access a water-filled portion of the mine. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

For some of you, that may have sent a shiver down your spine. As a first timer, the only chills I got were from the snowy hike up to the cave entrance. The biologists I trailed behind are the predecessors of a resolute crew that has been surveying Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) at abandoned mines and caves in New York every other winter since the early 1980s.

In addition to Indiana bats, five other bat species have repurposed abandoned mines like this one in New York State as their winter sleeping quarters. Being able to see these harmless flying mammals nestled together in furry clusters is unforgettable, and an experience I may only have once.

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Endangered Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis), Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

“This really shouldn’t take long,” remarked one of the biologists (referring to the survey). Good, I thought, we don’t want to disturb the bats anyway. But then it came to me. That means that there won’t be many bats to count. How could that be if this mine was at one time the largest known site in New York for Indiana bats?

Over 24,000 Indiana bats once filled the walls and ceiling of this hibernaculum, according to Carl Herzog, who is the New York State biologist in charge of bat conservation and management. As of this year, roughly half of that is the total count for the entire state. That’s because something changed in the winter of 2006-2007. A discovery in a cave near Albany, New York would haunt both bats and biologists ever since: white-nose syndrome (WNS).

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Biologists photograph bats high above to count and identify the species. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

Before I go too far into the gloomy details of how this fungal disease has caused [what is believed to be] the most dramatic decline of North American wildlife in over 100 years, here’s some positive news: we’re there for bats. Since well before the disease’s inception, biologists and researchers have been monitoring bats in New York. “Without these efforts, as well as those done by a handful of academic researchers who concentrated on bat work in the Northeast, we would not have quickly recognized WNS for the disaster that it is,” explains Carl, adding that “ we would literally be years behind where we are in terms of knowledge and understanding.”

Being down in this dark and challenging work environment comes with risks for both biologists and the bats. There is no uniformity to the terrain. Ice stalagmites and loose rocks protrude from the ground, awaiting your unfortunate missed step. You have to be ready to get dirty. That also means meticulous decontamination of every piece of gear is a must; from helmets and headlamps, to cameras and boots.  There is no taking a chance on transporting this fungal disease from one hole in the ground to another.

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Light streaming into the cave entrance as the canoe is hoisted out. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

All this for a small glimpse into understanding how we can help bats.  And they need our help now more than ever. As of last week, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was found in six Texas counties, making it the 33rd state in the U.S. with the fungus or the disease. In New York, affected bat species have faced up to 99% decline in some hibernacula. Without these surveys, we would have no clue. The data from this year could tell a lot about the future of Indiana bats in New York.

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Biologists exit the abandoned mine after completing the survey. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

“White nose syndrome has been such an intense learning experience that the lessons have been many,” says Herzog. Whether you like bats or not, there is so much more we can learn about them. In the end, bats help us, be it through bat-inspired aircraft, natural pest control, or better food crop yields.

 


 

A note on restrictions:  It is to your benefit and the bats’ that you do not enter restricted cave and mines sites, and do not ignore restricted area signs. Disturbing a hibernating bat can cause it to burn up vital fat reserves and possibly not survive the winter. Surveys are coordinated with state, federal and non-government partners to reduce disturbance of hibernating bats, and precautions are taken to minimize risk of transporting white-nose syndrome out of this disease-contaminated site.  For more information on cave access, please see the following.