Tag Archives: halloween

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.

Blackout: Before and after Sandy hit the NY-NJ metro region. CREDIT: NASA

Hurricane Sandy one year later: building coastal defenses to keep the lights on

Blackout: Before and after Sandy hit the NY-NJ metro region. CREDIT: NASA

Halloween Blackout: Before and after Sandy hit the NY-NJ metro region. CREDIT: NASA

This year, Halloween marks the anniversary of a dark nightmare that was all too real for the people, places and wildlife of the Atlantic Coast: Hurricane Sandy. What are we doing to prepare for the possibility of another super storm? Scientists, engineers and other experts at the at the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies have put a great deal of thought into planning for such contingencies. A week ago, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a multi-pronged plan to fund resiliency projects up and down the Atlantic coast that are specifically designed to build up natural barriers in the region, including wetlands, dunes, tidal marshes and other features of “green infrastructure,” recognizing their critical role as buffers to probable future storms and sea level rise.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announces $162 million in Hurricane Sandy resiliency funding. CREDIT: Keth Shannon/USFWS

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announces $162 million in Hurricane Sandy resiliency funding. CREDIT: Keith Shannon/USFWS

“What we witnessed during Hurricane Sandy was that our public lands and other natural areas are often the best defense against Mother Nature,” said Jewell, at an event at E.B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, where she announced more than $162 million of funding, more than $100 million of which will go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 30 projects. Many national wildlife refuges and other federal lands along the coast are recognized for their potential ability to absorb the brunt of extreme weather events, serving as natural protectors for coastal communities and infrastructure. The projects will also restore and create healthy environments for dozens of species, and ensure the integrity of major migratory bird stop-over points at places like the Forsythe refuge and the several refuges that make up the Long Island Complex (dunes at Amagansett NWR shown below).

Dunes, beaches and tidal marshes provide a natural defense against coastal flooding and storm surge. CREDIT: USFWS

Dunes, beaches and tidal marshes provide a natural defense against coastal flooding and storm surge. CREDIT: USFWS

For more information on ongoing repair, restoration and resiliency projects, visit our Hurricane Sandy home page.

Thomas Sturm is a Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Northeast Regional Office. 

“Bats get caught in your hair – I saw it on TV!”

Today you're hearing from Christina Kocer, the white-nose syndrome coordinator for our Northeast Region. Credit: USFWS

Today you’re hearing from Christina Kocer, the white-nose syndrome coordinator for our Northeast Region. Credit: USFWS

 

Halloween means zombies, witches, vampires, and goblins lurk in the shadows and around every corner. Toothy, carved pumpkins and images of bats silhouetted against a full moon abound.

I admit the idea of encountering a zombie does not sit well with me; however, bats are a different story. Despite their spooky image, bats are far from terrifying, and I can assure you, they really don’t want anything to do with your hair. 

Bats get a bad rap. I recently watched a movie that depicted bats as swarming, voracious creatures with chameleon-like abilities to change colors and hide in plain sight, waiting to attack.

That is terrifying, right? But that is about as far from reality as you can get.

Here's an exotic one for you. The Rodrigues flying fox is the only native mammal from the island of Rodrigues in the Mauritius Island belt near Madagascar. These endangered bats were brought into captivity in the late 1970s when their numbers were less than 100 on the island. Photo courtesy of Organization for Bat Conservation, credit to Steve Gettle. Read more at their site.

Here’s an exotic one for you. The Rodrigues flying fox (which has a wingspan of about 3 feet) is the only native mammal from the island of Rodrigues in the Mauritius Island belt near Madagascar. These endangered bats were brought into captivity in the late 1970s when their numbers were less than 100 on the island. Photo courtesy of Organization for Bat Conservation, credit to Steve Gettle. Read more at their site.

As much as I’d love to see a bat turn from black to purple to green, it just won’t happen. Instead, real bats are likely to use their natural color to just blend in and hide by tucking underneath tree bark or burying themselves in clumps of leaves. And as long as we are clearing the air, bats…

  • will not fly into your hair;
  • will not suck your blood;
  • will not try to eat you alive; and
  • will not chew through your siding, your shutters, or your attic vents.

Bats are not birds, they are not giant insects, and they are not flying rodents. They do not build nests. They will not breed like rabbits and rapidly infest your house. They are not blind. They are not flying, disease ridden vermin searching out unsuspecting humans to infect.

Well, if they aren’t going to attack me in my sleep, build nests in my hair, or try to eat my brains, what the heck are they, and what do they do? Bats are mammals — the only mammals capable of flight. They are covered in soft fur and give birth to live young (pups) which are nursed until they are old enough to venture out on their own.

A tri-colored bat showing signs of white-nose syndrome while hibernating in a Massachusetts cave. Credit: Jon Reichard

A tri-colored bat showing signs of white-nose syndrome while hibernating in a Massachusetts cave. Credit: Jon Reichard

Even though some people think they look like flying mice, they are not closely related to rodents. The bones in their wings are the same bones you have in your own hand. Bats are very diverse, making up about one quarter of all mammals worldwide:

  • They range in size from the world’s smallest mammal, the small, bumblebee-sized bumblebee bat to the large flying foxes, with their 6-foot wingspans.
  • They are pollinators, fruit eaters, seed dispersers, and insect devourers.
  • They can have big ears, small ears or pointy ears;
  • Fancy wrinkly faces or a face that looks remarkably like fox’s;
  • Small, pointed noses or noses that resemble a leaf; and they can have long tails or short tails.

And yes, some bats feed on blood. But don’t worry; even though vampire bats do exist, these very specialized creatures are smaller than your typical cell phone and aren’t the terrifying creatures you may be imagining. Vampire bats live in Central and South America and typically feed on the blood of livestock, and believe it or not, their feeding ritual goes largely unnoticed by their prey. Their saliva has even been used to develop medicines for stroke patients.

Check out this blog post from our Director Dan Ashe, ”The Real Horror Would Be If Bats Disappear”

Closer to home, here in the Northeast, our native bats are small, and most weigh about the same as a few pennies.

Eastern red bats are America's most abundant tree bats, roosting right out in the foliage of deciduous or sometimes evergreen trees. Read more at Bat Conservation International. Credit: Marianne Moore

Eastern red bats are America’s most abundant tree bats, roosting right out in the foliage of deciduous or sometimes evergreen trees. Read more at Bat Conservation International. Credit: Marianne Moore

White-nose syndrome has led to a 99-percent drop in northern long-eared bat populations in the Northeast, leading to our proposal earlier this month to protect them as endangered. Credit: Al Hicks/NYSDEC

White-nose syndrome has led to a 99-percent drop in northern long-eared bat populations in the Northeast, leading to our proposal earlier this month to protect them as endangered. Credit: Al Hicks/NYSDEC

The thousands of insects they eat each night save farmers millions of dollars on insect control and crop damage. That makes bats the most organic form of insect control you can get. Our local bats are agile fliers who are adept at navigating through thick forests in search of their insect prey. They readily devour the pests that eat our food crops and trees, and spread disease.

Those bats that seem to be swooping down to grab a chunk of your hair? Yep, those bats might just be going after insects too — the insects that are going after you.

Bats are long-lived species; some individuals have even been documented to have survived for over 30 years. Quite unlike rodents, most bats are only able to produce one to two pups each year (some species may have up to 4 pups).

Unfortunately, right now bats have something to fear themselves – white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS is a rapidly spreading fungal disease that has resulted in the catastrophic decline of bats throughout eastern North America.

Over 5.7 million bats have already died, and because bats are long-lived and produce so few young, it will take many generations for populations to recover from this disease.

And, speaking of diseases, the claim that all bats are rabid is yet another fear perpetuated by popular media.

While it’s true that bats can carry rabies, less than 1 percent of wild bats are actually infected with the disease. Even so, don’t go picking up any bats you might find on the ground. That bat may be sick or injured, and it won’t be worth the mandatory rabies shots you’ll have to get if you try to handle it. Call your local wildlife biologist for help.

While there is no reason for us to fear these beneficial critters, I admit, it’s unnerving to have a bat flying circles in your living room. But, if that happens to you, gather your wits, remember why bats are good, and help the little guy escape safely by opening a window so the bat can fly out.

Despite what you may have seen on TV, the world is a better place for everyone with bats in it. 🙂