East End May Hold Clues to Bat Survival

Bat populations across eastern North America have been devastated in recent years by a fungal infection known as White Nose Syndrome, but the East End may hold answers to what makes bat colonies resistant to this epidemic.

While scientists believe as much as 99 percent of New York State’s Northern long-eared bat population has been killed by the fungus, they’ve recently discovered an apparently disease-resistant population of those bats right here in our backyard.

Researchers from the State University of New York at Albany are embarking on a two-year-long survey of winter insect populations on the East End, acting under the hypothesis that insects that survive the winter here may be providing the bats with enough sustenance to survive White Nose Syndrome.

“This disease causes bats to starve by waking them during hibernation, consequently wasting limited energy stores,” says SUNY Albany Masters student Casey Pendergast, who is helping organize the study. 

SUNY Albany Ph.D. candidate Samantha Hoff said populations of northern long-eared bats that seem resistant to White Nose Syndromes have been found on Eastern Long Island, on Nantucket and on Martha’s Vineyard, where they seem to hibernate in small numbers in crawl spaces below people’s houses.

Ms. Hoff said one potential reason these populations are surviving is that they are hibernating in small numbers — with only five or six other bats, instead of in groups of hundreds, where the fungus can easily be transmitted from one bat to the next.

White Nose Syndrome was first identified among bats in a cave in Schoharie County, NY in 2006, and has rapidly spread to 33 U.S. states and seven Canadian provinces over the past decade. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has called for a moratorium on caving as a result of the fungus, and recommends that cavers decontaminate their clothing and equipment after leaving caves. Fifteen species of bats, including three endangered species and one threatened species, are susceptible to the disease. 

The death of large swaths of bat populations could have broad ecological impact, as bats may not be able to keep pest insect populations in check, creating difficulties for North American farmers. 

“Recently, we have discovered a population on Eastern Long Island that appears to be surviving and resisting this disease,” said Ms. Pendergast. “In an effort to determine the mechanism that is enabling survival of this remnant population, we have launched a full investigation into this local population. One study, a survey of winter insects that may serve as potential prey, provides an excellent opportunity for local schools, students, and other volunteers to get involved in this research.”

“Our hypothesis is these bats are waking up and emerging from hibernation sites during the winter time but are able to feed on winter insects to supplement their energy stores,” said Ms. Pendegast. “We believe the milder winter conditions along the coastal region of Long Island allows for a small population of insects to be active during the winter.”

The researchers are planning to deploy self-contained insect traps at at least four survey sites on the East End — one on the North Fork near Northville, one on Shelter Island, one in Sag Harbor and one in East Hampton, with the help of local people who are willing to host the traps on their properties. They are also interested in adding more study areas if there is enough interest from the public.

The researchers looking for citizen scientists who are willing to deploy two traps at each site. The traps consist of self-contained five-gallon buckets, one which will have a UV light in it and one which will have insect bait. The traps will be deployed just before sunset, and retrieved the following morning. The insects will then need to be loaded into vials and shipped to their lab for identification.

The researchers don’t have a schedule for the survey dates, because the insects will only emerge when the nighttime temperature is above 41 degrees Fahrenheit, a condition that only occurs, on average, five time per month between December and March. They are hoping to conduct the surveys once per week.

“This study presents a wonderful opportunity for students to get involved with scientific research. If you have multiple student volunteers, a weekly schedule could allow them to share the responsibility. We could also loan our survey equipment to your department if you wish to complete a seasonal study for the class (i.e. insect abundance in winter vs spring/summer),” said Ms. Pendergast. “If you are unable or uninterested in taking part in this citizen science experiment but are aware of someone who might be please send me their contact information. Do not hesitate to ask if you have questions or would like more information.”

Ms. Pendergast can be reached by email at cjpendergast@albany.edu.

Ms. Hoff added that researchers are also interested in looking at the crawl spaces of houses on the East End to see if they are being used by hibernating bats. She said ideal crawl spaces aren’t regularly disturbed by residents, and aren’t finished or at the same temperature as the interior of the house, though bats have been found hibernating in crawl spaces of all sizes, ranging from a foot or so below a house to spaces that are nearly big enough to walk in.

The researchers, who plan to continue their study through this winter and the winter of 2019-2020, are planning to post more information, including a survey of East End crawl spaces, online at the website of their lab, run by Dr. Wendy Turner.

“Bats are an incredibly unique and very diverse order of mammals,” said Ms. Hoff. “In the northeast, they eat a lot of insects — mosquitoes, beetles and crop pests — anything that flies at night. They provide an important ecosystem service to farms and vineyards.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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