- Oct 22, 2021 7:00 pm GMT
As temperatures drop and the summer fades away, many of our favorite fall traditions return. As a researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the cooler temperatures mark the beginning of the hibernation cycle and an important time for monitoring the health and well-being of the creatures who are essential to our ecosystem.
One of the animal species EPRI is monitoring most closely is bats. These important nocturnal animals are in critical decline across North America. The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), the Northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), and the tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus) have declined by more than 90 percent in the past decade due to the rapid spread of a fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans) which causes White Nose Syndrome (WNS).
You may have heard about WNS or seen the pictures of bats with what appears to be white powder or fuzz around their faces and body. That “fuzz” or “powder” is in fact a fungus grows on hibernating bats as they hibernate for the winter season. As the fungus grows around their faces, it irritates their noses and breathing passages which causes the animal to stir and break their hibernation. Waking from hibernation is dangerous as the animal begins to use their stored fat reserve at a much higher rate than usual. Burning through this reserve means they become hungry and are forced leave their hibernation location to search food. The animals will search for prey of insects and moths which are a greater scarcity in long winter months. With limited available food to help sustain them through winter, most bats will starve to death.
WNS was first discovered in New York in 2006 and since then, it has rapidly spread across the Eastern United States and now into the Central and Western regions. Research into how and why the fungus is spreading is limited, though EPRI and our research collaborators at Bat Conservation International (BCI) are committed to learning more. Recently, we identified a promising lead that may provide potential a successful mitigation strategy: Making bats fat.
Research has shown that bats that enter hibernation with larger fat reserves tend to fare better against WNS. Though they may still experience fugus growth on their bodies, the higher fat reserve means they are less likely to die from starvation as a result of WNS.
In 2019, EPRI and BCI came together to study the use of artificial prey patches in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The prey patches used ultra-violet (UV) lights to attract insects to five spots where Little Brown Bat hibernation occurs. Every other night, researchers assessed the sites to monitor insect prey (both type and amount), bat activity, and bat foraging rats. The study showed that these artificial prey patches were successful at attracting insects like moths and caddisflies, common prey items for bats, to the designated areas. Bat foraging activity was higher at the prey patches indicating that bats are eating insects attracted to the UV lights.
With these encouraging results in hand, we’ve expanded our “Fat Bats” program to include artificial prey patches across different regions and habitats in WNS-affected areas. Working with utility providers, who often own or manage the land areas in which bats hibernate, this expanded study will help us test the effectiveness of this mitigation strategy in different locations affected by WNS, and whether artificial prey patches may be a cost-effective, non-invasive conservation measure to support WNS-impacted species.
While our research is ongoing, we are optimistic that this and other proactive strategies may help slow the population decline and protect this important species. If you want to learn more about WNS and join the cause to end bat extinction worldwide, visit Bat Conservation International.
You can also join EPRI and BCI on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as we celebrate #BatWeek, October 24-31. Follow #BatWeek to learn more about the role bats play in our ecosystems and what we can do to help protect them.
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