For my senior project at NHTI, I interned with the NH office for Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), sorting data from reports all over New England. I studied up on bats (amazing organisms), sorted the data, gave feedback on report formatting, made a poster with the findings from the reports, and presented at the North East Bat Working Group conference in Massachusetts. It was a wonderful experience and I learned so much! (Fall 2016)
Sitting in Susi V's office working on our poster for the conference
The poster hanging in the hallway of the natural sciences building at NHTI
Bats In New England: White Nose Syndrome
In a world so full of biodiversity it is not hard to believe that there is a large amount of information that we are missing. However, this is mostly a way of thinking we prescribe to organisms that are exotic and those that exist in uncharted territory, not to organisms in our own backyard- literally. Bats as a species are largely misunderstood and have stereotypes and stigmatisms that they are not necessarily deserving of, especially because of how beneficial they are to humans and maintaining biodiversity. Even with how beneficial they are, bats face a huge threat that is wiping out populations in various parts of North America.
Bats around the world have a diverse diet and size range: there are fruit bats in the tropical regions that feast on over-ripe fruit and pollen that are hugely important when it comes to seed dispersal and pollination, there are bat species in Mexico, Central, and South America that feed off small amounts of blood from livestock (the infamous vampire bats), and then there are the most common: bats that are insectivores (Best, 1999). Bats in New England include the Big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), the Little brown (Myotis lucifugus), Eastern Small-footed bat (Myotis leibii), the Hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus), the Silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), the Northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), the Eastern Red bat (Lasiurus borealis), and the Tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus), all of which are insectivorous.
Bat populations all over the world face their own unique obstacles when it comes to surviving, but the largest one yet is White Nose Syndrome (WNS). This disease, now “recognised as one of the most devastating wildlife epidemics in history” (W. F. Frick et al., 2016), is wiping out bats in the United States from southern Canada and Maine, to Mississippi, and to Washington state.The disease was first discovered in a New York hibernacula in 2006, but has been traced back to Europe where the fungus is present but not harmful to the native bats. It is thought that the disease was brought to America not by foreign bats, but from a human wearing gear infected in Europe to a cave in New York (W. F. Frick et al., 2016). WNS was formally named Geomyces destructans, now called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, and is a fungus that infects the bats skin tissue, leaving a visible white residue on the face and wings of the organism and giving the disease its common name (W. F. Frick et al., 2016). The disease is transmitted by contact with skin, most easily when the wings come in contact with the pathogen.This means that the bats can get the disease just from their surroundings in a cave or from other bats that they may be roosting with. This becomes a problem when bats are migrating from summer and winter locations; if the bats migrated to a winter hibernacula that was infected with WNS it is almost certain that they will contract the disease. There is a very low survival rate once a bat has WNS which is due to the fact if it has to wake up from hibernation, the energy stores that it saved up to make it through the winter will be depleted and the bat will starve and /or freeze (W. F. Frick et al., 2016). If a bat somehow survives through the hibernation while it has WNS, it will exhibit an immune response that is similar to immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome (IRIS) which “dramatically increase[s] tissue damage and they [the bats] reflect an overreaction to infection because euthermic body temperatures in spring would likely be sufficient to combat the fungal infection (W. F. Frick et al., 2016).” However, this means a huge amount of energy would be needed that the bat just won't have coming out of hibernation (W. F. Frick et al., 2016). This is one of many issues that would affect the bat if it survived hibernation with WNS.
So far, the best way to combat this heart sickening issue is prevention and not treatment. Scientists and cave spelunkers must make sure that all of their gear is sanitary before they go into a hibernacula. Sometimes this even means buying new gear and equipment so there is no doubt that there won’t be some spread of P. destructans to the cave they are in. As for treatment, it is difficult to eradicate the disease without wiping out other beneficial bacteria and fungi in the caves, not to mention how difficult treating so many bats and possible infected locations would be. Still, there are those that are working on way to treat infected bats to lessen the effects of the disease. One study has shown that specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can inhibit the growth of P. destructans (Cornelison et al., 2014). Other methods of prevention include man made hibernacula that would be cleaned every summer, and other chemistry based studies on P. destructans (W. F. Frick et al., 2016).
Five of the eight species of bats we have in New England have been identified to have WNS symptoms (E. fuscus, M. lucifugus, M. leibii, M. septentrionalis, and P.subflavus), and M. septentrionalis was listed as federally threatened in 2015 because of how badly WNS has affected its population (W. F. Frick et al., 2016). In Canada, M. lucifugus and M. septentrionalis bats were listed as endangered as well as P.subflavus in 2015 for fear of how badly their populations were being affected (W. F. Frick et al., 2016). This year in New Hampshire those same bats (P.subflavus, M. lucifugus) are proposed to be added to the state's endangered list (NH Fish and Game, 2016).
Recently, I have been working with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to help them sort through reports brought in from various agencies. Presence/ absence surveys were done in New England states by Department of Transportation (DOTs) as well as private environmental consulting firms to look for M. septentrionalis because it is on the federally endangered list. Any projects being done that could potentially disturb or infringe on roosting sites for M. septentrionalis had to be monitored with technology that would pick up acoustic bat calls. If the calls were identified, proper measures to ensure the bats well being would have to be taken. The USFWS had me testing out the data input form they were using to consolidate the information from the reports, and give them feedback on how the format worked and how well the new 2016 Summer Survey Guidelines complimented it. I was going through both 2015 and 2016 reports so I was able to confirm that the new guidelines worked well for the data input form. The information that I was working with included: who was performing the survey, latitude and longitude for the survey site, the name of the site and the project, the detector and microphone brand and model (along with other specifics if given), and details on the location. Along with this information that was required, there was also required information for the results for each site: What bats were identified, how many calls for each, the MLE which is a software based value for how likely the bat was there, confirmed calls, and the software that was used to ID the calls. All of this information gives a good snapshot of bats in the areas reported on.
With the data from the reports, I picked out the presence absence confirmations for just New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, and with the help of the USFWS’s geographic information system (GIS) specialist added the information to previous data (2012 and 2013) to create up to date maps. As of right now the maps are still a work in progress, but they will show the confirmed presence of E. fuscus, M. lucifugus, M. septentrionalis, and P.subflavus compared to the sites that were monitored. This will give a good visual of the effects that WNS has on the different species over the years. This map is an example of what the ones being worked on will look like, with dots representing the areas that were surveyed and then other symbols representing where the confirmed presence was for the particular bat species. The maps will be displayed as part of a poster that I will be presenting this next January at The North East Bat Working Group conference to share this information with other scientists and those passionate about bats and preserving biodiversity.
Harvey, M. J., Altenbach, J. S., & Best, T. L. (1999). Bats of the United States. Little Rock: Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.
Voigt, C. C., & Kingston, T. (n.d.). Bats in the anthropocene: Conservation of bats in a changing world. SpringerOpen.
Fish, U. S., & Service, W. (2015, February 9). U.S. Fish and wildlife service. Retrieved November 19, 2016, from https://www.fws.gov
Got Bats? (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2016, from http://vtfishandwildlife.com/learn_more/living_with_wildlife/got_bats
White Nose Syndrome. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/
(Photos from above site)
Cornelison, C. T., Gabriel, K. T., Barlament, C., & Crow, S. A. (2013). Inhibition of Pseudogymnoascus destructans Growth from Conidia and Mycelial Extension by Bacterially Produced Volatile Organic Compounds. Mycopathologia, 177(1-2), 1-10. doi:10.1007/s11046-013-9716-2