DSU researcher dicusses threatened status of northern long-eared bat
Next month, the northern long-eared bat will officially gain status as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The decline of this bat species in the First State and beyond has been largely due the spread of a disease called white nose syndrome.
Officials estimate that White Nose Syndrome has killed from 5.7 to 6.7 million bats in the Eastern United States. The disease, which causes a white fungus to sprout through the bat’s muzzle, was first found in 2006 in Albany, New York. It’s likely that it was brought over from Europe via cave divers. Three years ago, DNREC announced that officials detected White Nose Syndrome at Fort Delaware State Park.
DSU bat researcher Kevina Vulinec says bats affected by the white nose syndrome fungus end up getting uncomfortable, like a person would with athlete’s foot. But the fungus bothers bats so much they fly out at odd times, when there’s no food around, and end up starving to death.
“It causes the bats to rouse during hibernation, they rouse a lot more than they normally would. And because of that they’re not able to eat. Bats up in New York, they fly out of the cave and there’s no insects to eat”
At her Dover laboratory, she and her researchers study white nose syndrome by using a scanning electron microscope to see how the fungus looks inside the bat’s body.
Vulinec says that long-eared bats tend to return to the same place year after year. That could be one of the reasons why the disease has had such a great impact on that species.
“They’re philopatric so they like to come back to the same place, so if the fungus is there, they’ll just be reinfecting themselves.”
Another bat on the state’s threatened species list is the little brown bat, which tend to roost in caves. Caves provide cold, damp environments that allow the white nose syndrome fungus to thrive.
If a person sees a bat in Delaware, they’re more likely to come across the big brown and red bats. The long-eared species have a lower presence in Delaware, but they’re still listed on the state’s threatened species list.
Vulinec says now that the long eared bat has been placed on the threatened species list, researchers like her may pay even closer attention to the species.
“We might target that bat and find out where they are roosting, where they are going. When you’re working with an endangered species, you have to be careful. The important things are how can we keep the animal alive.”
Bats have a lot of value. They are critical in pollinating many major crops and they help get rid of pests for farmers. A 2011 study in the journal Science, estimated that declining bat populations could cost the agriculture industry $3.7 billion annually.
There are ways for homeowners to help encourage bat populations. Vulinec suggests building something called the “bat box.”
“It’s a commercially made box, or you could make your own, but it’s a wooden box that has baffles inside. It’s perfect for bats to live in. It’s a roost for bats. You could put them up on a pole on the side of your house. You have to have certain requirements, you have to facing the sun in a certain direction, can’t be too close to trees. There’s a lot of criteria that you have to look for, or you can buy them commercially. And put them around your yard, or your house. That will encourage them to come to your yard and eat up all your insects.”
The long-eared bat will officially receive federal protection on May 1. A public comment period is open until July 1.