The Hippo


Jul 22, 2019








Source: Emily Preston, New Hampshire Fish and Game Biologist

Waiting for Batman
Is it too late to save New Hampshire’s disappearing bats?


 When local bat biologists visited three New Hampshire hibernacula to conduct an annual winter survey of the bats that hibernate, they experienced what New Hampshire Fish and Game Biologist Emily Preston called an “unprecedented mass extinction.”

Biologist Scott Reynolds and Preston climbed into one of three mines they have been surveying since the early 2000s, a space that housed 514 hibernating bats in 2009.  
To get into the mine, the team maneuvered down a 10-foot sloping ice sheet rife with stalagmites and stalactites, but before they got very deep at all, they found a tri-colored bat right at the entrance. 
Seeing the animal so close to the entrance was a sign of White Nose Syndrome — a sickness caused by  fibrous fungus that threads into the hairless parts of bats’ bodies, creating crevices and holes and eventually killing the host.   
When they got a closer look, they saw that the white fungus had infected the animal’s flesh. 
They ventured deeper into the mine with hopes of finding more bats tucked in the holes that had once held dynamite that blasted out the mine. While bats used to fill those holes, this winter every single space was empty. 
The survey of the three mines resulted in only 28 bat sightings. One hibernaculum was completely empty. Another only housed one bat. New Hampshire’s largest hibernaculum, found in Coos County, had about 1,800 bats in 2008, but only 27 this winter. 
“It just got more and more depressing as we got deeper and deeper into these mines,” Preston said. “We snowshoed over to another mine and there was nothing in there either. I kind of felt like I was watching extinction happen right in front of me.”
A spreading disease
In 2006 White Nose Syndrome was discovered in a New York cave. Because bats can migrate hundreds of miles, the syndrome began to spread quickly from state to state. In 2009 and 2010, while other states’ bat populations were nose-diving, New Hampshire’s was actually increasing — in some hibernacula by 30 percent. 
“We thought, great,” Preston said. “Then everything crashed. Bats in other states with exposed caves and mines were fleeing and going to New Hampshire hibernacula, and most likely they brought the fungus with them too.”
Usually White Nose Syndrome kills the bats in the winter while they use incredible amounts of energy to hibernate, said Susi von Oettingen, an endangered species biologist for the New England U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During hibernation, if the bats become irritated by the disease, they wake to pick the fungus off their skin, which overexerts and weakens the animals. Female bats are more susceptible because they need more energy to reproduce. 
“That’s the perfect time for fungus to invade because they can’t fight it off like you or I would with a cold,” von Oettingen said.  “The bats either die in place, or they flee into very cold places with no food. It’s just so wrong to see them out like that. It’s so awful. They die, or survive winter, then their wings are in such bad conditions, they die in summer.”
The disease has now spread to half of all U.S. states and parts of Canada. It’s killed off 90 to 99 percent of all little brown bats and long-eared bats, and up to 70 percent of Indiana bats in New Hampshire and the Northeast. Many of the bats that migrate to New Hampshire for the summer but hibernate in Vermont’s massive caves in the winter have been wiped out too. Other bat species, like the small-footed bat, have been affected to a lesser extent. Big brown bats and tri-color bats are faring better. 
“When there’s nothing left there’s really nothing you can hope for recovery,” said Reynolds, who believes the devastation points to a deficiency in funding for wildlife knowledge and research before a crisis hits. We’ve been reactionary, he said.  
Scientists haven’t found the exact genetic match that identifies the fungus’ origin, but it most likely came from Europe, where bats are infected with a fungus with some of the same genus and species but not the same genotype, von Oettingen said. Across the Atlantic, infected bats don’t die, possibly because they hibernate in smaller numbers, or because they have developed resistance. 
In the U.S., scientists and experts from universities, nonprofits, and state and federal agencies are coming together to study the bats. They are banding bats’ wings in order to understand whether some are surviving and returning or new bats are coming in. If bats are returning, scientists want to know what kinds of genetic or behavioral resistances they could be passing on to their pups. The research is happening in parts of the country infections haven’t yet reached, and in New Hampshire too, but Reynolds said it’s probably too late for the state.  
“They consider our area a sacrifice zone,” Reynolds said.
Let them be
Other local bat biologists look toward the few bats that have survived for hope. They are calling on residents to help preserve the affected bat species in any way possible.  Many landowners have barns and attics that New Hampshire’s summer bat population nest in. 
“The number one thing is if you have bats in your barn, let them stay there,” von Oettingen said. 
If people have bats in unwanted places, like their attics, she asks them not to do expulsions between May 15 and Aug. 15  when the bats are birthing and raising their pups. 
“Bats only have one pup a year and not a lot survive,” she said. “They get eaten by predators and as they are learning to fly they get broken wings, so we want every single baby bat born to have best chance of surviving.”
It’s also important for recreational cavers to stay out of sites with bats.  If people refuse to leave the bats where they are, they could build bat houses instead. 
Recreational cavers should also steer clear of caves that house bats. The fungus is incredibly  communicable and cavers can transport it from location to location — once a hibernaculum is affected, it’s not going away. 
Life without bats
Naturalist David Anderson remembers summer nights on his porch, watching a sky heavy with bats swooping and hawking insects. He said a sky full of bats is like a sky full of stars, and  “to have them missing is a profound spiritual loss for people who love the outdoors. It’s not a story that has a lot of hope.” 
When her kids were young, von Oettingen would take them out to wetlands in Warner to watch bats feeding, and identify their species. 
“And now it’s just nothing. It’s just quiet,” she said. “If my kids, who are older now, see a bat in the sky they let me know. They are kind of excited because there’s a bat out. We lost something and our children lost a lot because they won’t see those hundreds of bats swooping and swarming,” 
But scientists don’t know just how much is lost, or how deeply the absence of bats will change the state’s ecosystem. A female little brown bat can eat up to her weight in insects — about 10 grams every single night while nursing. To remove hundreds or thousands of efficient predator-eaters means moths, mosquitoes and other agricultural pests have the potential to run rampant throughout the state’s forests and farms. That could entice farmers and foresters to use more pesticides, which could then kill off all sorts of insects, agricultural predators or not. 
Or, if bats aren’t there to pick up water insects and deposit them in surrounding soil,  those areas of land could become depleted of nutrients, Reynolds said. 
Reynolds is working with a team on a project to develop forest management protocols that will benefit bats while still being conducive to forestry before the long-eared bats join the federal endangered  species list in New Hampshire this fall.
As seen in the May 1, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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