Tag Archives: cave

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.

It’s bat week!

Happy Bat Week!

We’re joining conservation partners across North America this week to celebrate bats. These fascinating animals are vital to a healthy environment, but since 2006 millions of bats have died from a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leads the nation’s response to this deadly disease, awarding almost $20 million in grants to states, federal agencies and researchers.

One of the projects we funded is a study to determine overwinter survival and behavior of little brown bats and northern long-eared bats at Aeolus Cave in Vermont.

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Researchers from the states of Vermont and New York, along with Vesper Environmental, LLC are using high-tech equipment to study bat movements there.

Tiny passive inducible transponders (PIT tags) glued to the backs of bats emit a unique signal identifying individual bats when they fly through an antenna array at the cave’s entrance.

Data from the research will shed light on whether bats counted in Northeast hibernation sites are survivors of white-nose syndrome and are beginning a population recovery, or remnants of a population that is now slowly declining towards extinction. We hope it’s not the latter!

Last month, we joined the researchers at Aeolus Cave as they captured, banded and tagged bats for the study.

Aeolus Cave is an important hibernation site for little brown bats, which travel from their summer homes around New England and New York to breed there and/or stay for the winter. Bats are long-lived species, often surviving into their teens or twenties, but white-nose syndrome has led to population declines of 90% or more. So it was very exciting to detect a bat in 2014 that was originally PIT-tagged at her New Hampshire summer colony in 2006. This bat has somehow survived through every winter that white-nose syndrome has been documented in North America!

Check out some video of the Aeolus Cave bats in action

Media coverage:

Will some bats survivie white-nose disease long term?

Biologists seek more info on surviving bats

Signs of hope amidst the Northeast’s great bat recession

Bats at Aeolus Cave featured on CBS Sunday Morning!

Today you're hearing from Alyssa Bennett of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. Here she and Joel Flewelling, also from the state agency, carefully measure a little brown bat to assess its health. Credit: USFWS

Signs of hope amidst the Northeast’s great bat recession

Today you're hearing from Alyssa Bennett of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. Here she and Joel Flewelling, also from the state agency, carefully measure a little brown bat to assess its health. Credit: USFWS

Today you’re hearing from Alyssa Bennett (left) of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. Here she and Joel Flewelling, also from the state agency, carefully measure a little brown bat to assess its health. This post comes from the White-Nose Syndrome blog. Credit: USFWS

When trying to explain how white-nose syndrome (WNS) continues to affect Vermont’s cave bats, I sometimes compare it to the Great Depression [of the bat world].

After the stock market crash in 1929, the recession in the U.S. spread to other countries, just as WNS has spread from the northeastern U.S. into five Canadian provinces and continues to move south and west each winter into the 26 states where the disease or the causative fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has been found.

Despite fluctuations and hopes of recovery, the Great Depression lasted over a decade and was global in impact. If you think the 10 percent unemployment rate of the 2008 recession was bad, consider unemployment rates of 25 percent during the Great Depression. Now try to picture unemployment rates of 90 percent, the percentage of cave bats that have died in the Northeast from white-nose syndrome.

A now rare northern long-eared bat captured during a fall swarm survey in southern Vermont. How can you help but love that face? Credit: Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

A now rare northern long-eared bat captured during a fall swarm survey in southern Vermont. How can you help but love that face? Credit: Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

The crisis in our bat population is not a minor or momentary slump. After the initial shock of the 2008 recession wore off, I remembered people starting to ask “Is the economy recovering yet?” Although the Dow Jones Industrial Average eventually recovered, as economies continue to grow, many companies did not.

White-nose syndrome has not affected all bats equally. Some species, such as the big brown bat, appear to be doing OK, so I am confident these heroes of WNS will continue to grace the night sky. But for a few species now listed as endangered in Vermont, including the little brown, northern long-eared, and tri-colored bats, declines have been as devastating as bankruptcy and recovery is in no way guaranteed.

Endangered means that a species is at risk of extinction. Extinction means GONE FOREVER. Remember the passenger pigeon? There is no bailout option for extinction.

A small cluster of hibernating little brown bats. Credit: Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

A small cluster of hibernating little brown bats. Credit: Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

Yet even in the face of such drastic declines, we are beginning to see hope here in Vermont. Although bats were still found dying in our largest hibernation cave this winter, the initial 90 percent mortality rate has slowed significantly, and some individuals are surviving multiple winters at infected sites. Summer colonies of little brown bats that used to contain hundreds or even thousands of bats, described as “clouds of bats” by homeowners at dusk, are now completely vacant in the eastern part of the state.

Yet in the rich habitat of the Champlain Valley, small remnant colonies are hanging on. At one such site, a colony containing around 650 bats before WNS is now fighting to survive with less than 100 remaining.

Do these survivors have a genetically-based advantage that can be passed on to the next generation? We are cooperating with researchers from around the country to find out. Even if so, do Vermont’s six cave-dwelling species have enough of a population left to make it in the long run? Only time will tell. The northern long-eared bat has been proposed for listing as federally endangered due to 98 percent declines region-wide.

Every bat biologist out there would love to give a breaking story about bats recovering, but I cannot let my hopeful nature mislead you. Bats are still very much in trouble and they very much need our help. Although we don’t yet have a way to prevent the mass mortality caused by WNS, we can continue to use one of the most powerful human tools we have for conservation: education. There are a limited number of bat biologists and researchers working on the disease, but there are hundreds of thousands of people living in close proximity to bats in the U.S. alone. We can help protect the remaining 10 percent of our cave bats from other threats through education.

A banded little brown bat. The small wing band is used to uniquely mark an individual so that it can be identified if it is observed again in the future. Credit: Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

A banded little brown bat. The small wing band is used to uniquely mark an individual so that it can be identified if it is observed again in the future. Credit: Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

It’s amazing to see the look of fear on someone’s face change to empathy when they learn that most of the species affected by WNS have only one young per year and are more closely related to you and I than they are to mice. Now add in their economic value as agricultural and human pest eaters (bats can eat half their weight in insects per night) and soon you have everyone’s interest, not just wildlife enthusiasts. We can use education to minimize direct persecution, habitat loss, and the many other threats that bats face. Vermont’s cave bats have no hope of “recovering” in our lifetimes to the numbers we once saw, but we can make sure that each and every one counts and hope that is just enough to keep them around in the long run.

Thank you for helping. You really do make a difference.

This post comes from the White-Nose Syndrome blog – check out the website to learn the latest in the WNS response!