White Nose Syndrome

A northern myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) with suspected White Nose Syndrome. Note fungal growth on face and forearm. At a Monroe County, Illinois hibernaculum. Histopathological confirmation of White Nose Syndrome for this animal is still pending. 13 February 2013. Photo credit: University of Illinois/Steve Taylor

A northern myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) with suspected White Nose Syndrome. Photo credit: University of Illinois/Steve Taylor

 

Since the arrival of white-nose syndrome (WNS) to North America in 2006, northern long eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis, MYSE) populations have been devastated by this infectious disease. What was once a common species is now rarely encountered on the landscape throughout much of their range, with 99% population declines documented from New York State hibernacula surveys. WNS is caused by an invasive fungus that disrupts natural torpor patterns during the winter, causing bats to wake up more frequently than usual and burn through their vital fat reserves, often resulting in mortality. Millions of bats are estimated to have died from the disease, and it has since spread to 33 states and 7 Canadian provinces (for more information on this disease, visit www.whitenosesyndrome.org).

Despite these negative trends, one source of hope for this species lies in the Atlantic coast, where recent evidence indicates that this region may be harboring remnant populations of northern long-eared bats. Over the past few years, our team has documented robust summer populations, successful reproduction, multi-year survivors, and novel hibernation behaviors on three northeastern coastal islands. The overall goal of our project is to better understand the mechanisms allowing these coastal populations to persist, while populations elsewhere have experienced drastic declines. Our study area encompasses three islands: Long Island, NY, Martha’s Vineyard, MA, and Nantucket, MA, and is a collaborative effort between university researchers (University at Albany, Siena College, and Northern Arizona University), non-profit organizations (BiodiversityWorks and Nantucket Conservation Foundation), and state and federal agencies (NYSDEC and US Fish & Wildlife Service).
Below are the objectives of our project, with a brief description of the methods we use to learn more about this amazing species!

  1. Determine the distribution and abundance of northern long-eared bats on coastal islands and assess seasonal changes in activity 
    1. A landscape scale sampling method is employed using acoustic detectors to determine where individuals are present during the summer, how this may change seasonally, and what habitat factors may be important to support the population. 
  2. Discover hibernation locations and monitor the activity at these sites 
    1. We attached radio-transmitters to bats during the fall and use telemetry to track daily movements of bats, with hopes of following them to their ultimate hibernation locations. Once we find a hibernacula, we monitor the site with acoustic detectors and cameras to study the activity patterns of these bats throughout the winter.
  3. Assess the prevalence of WNS in these coastal populations
    1. When we capture bats during the fall or spring, we take a swab sample from each individual that is tested for the presence of the fungus, and the fungal load (amount of fungus presence). We can then compare these levels with samples taken from the mainland to see if there are infection level differences. Samples are also taken from hibernation sites to assess the level of environmental contamination. 
  4. Investigate the availability of prey during the winter and the seasonal changes in diet of coastal northern long-eared bat populations
    1. A combination of light and bait insect traps are being employed across the islands to identify possible winter prey species. Guano samples are being collected throughout the year and we will run a DNA analysis to determine the dietary makeup. 

Based on our preliminary data from 2017, we observed a strong trend of increased presence of northern long-eared bats as you move further east across Long Island, and activity levels are higher the closer you are to the coast across all three study islands. Northern long-eared bats are more likely to be present in areas with lower development levels, sources of water, and at least 20% canopy cover, although they can be found in small forested patches near developed areas. The bats that remain on the coasts to hibernate throughout the winter have been found in human structures, particularly crawl spaces underneath both seasonal and year-round houses.

Because capturing and tracking bats is a labor and time intensive approach, we are reaching out to the communities across our study locations with a request for information. If you live on eastern Long Island (particularly the south fork or Shelter Island), Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket, and have a building that has some kind of subterranean feature, we would love to hear about it! Even if you have never seen bats in or around your property, it is possible they could be present and you may never know – however if you have such observations we would welcome the information! Please fill out this survey to give us some details about your space, or contact one of our researchers (Samantha Hoff – shoff@albany.edu or Casey Pendergast – cjpendergast@albany.edu) if you have additional questions or comments.

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