After decades on the endangered species list, Karner blue butterflies are close to being deemed safe, but now attention has moved onto another winged creature — bats.
White-nose syndrome, a deadly fungus attacking hibernating bats, has been attributed to the sharp decline in bat populations in New York within the last nine years. With the help and funding of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve has begun new research on the species in an effort that will aid in the preservation of bats.
At the end of July, initial efforts to help the mammals included deploying 10 sensors in the preserve to detect nocturnal vocalizations, which in turn will identify what species of bats occupy the Pine Bush.
With nine species in New York, Pine Bush Conservation Director Neil Gifford said it was sometimes difficult to determine which live in the Pine Bush, since some bats look similar, or how many of each species.
The sensors detect the bats’ echolocation signals. In turn, researchers can pick out which bat made the sound.
“We really don’t know anything about the use of the preserve by bats,” said Gifford. “Our initial question is for us to figure out who’s out there.”
Although the research has just begun, having started in late July, and no data is available yet, Gifford said the sensors have already picked up signals.
Robyn Niver, endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said the Pine Bush was particularly of interest due to its efforts in restoring the Karner blue butterfly population. The insects had been on the decline in the area until the Pine Bush began accelerated colonization efforts.
Now, the butterflies are only a year away from being considered a recovered species by federal standards.
“One of the reasons why we were really interested (in the Pine Bush) is because it’s home to another endangered species. We wanted to look at whether restoring the habitat of one species to make sure it didn’t adversely affect another,” said Niver.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Albany Pine Bush Preserve are working together to see what influence the preservation efforts for the Karner blues has, if any, on the bats’ habitat.
Gifford said the Pine Bush has “a lot of unknowns” when it comes to bats, like how many roost in trees during the day.
As well, Niver said once a basis of study for what species live in the area is established, the bats can be tracked with radio transmitters to see if there are any reproducing populations.
“Do we still have moms and their babies? Or is it just a few individuals?” said Niver.
In addition, the area is where white-nose syndrome was first found in the United States. It was discovered in the winter of 2009 in Schoharie County, having been transported from Europe.
According to Gifford, the fungus was introduced into caves by cavers. The fungus spread from one hibernating bat colony to another as cavers explored different areas.
Gifford said the fungus attaches itself to a bat’s face and wings, feeding off the tissue and weakening the immune system. The bat then uses so much energy fighting off the fungus that it tries to come out of its hibernation in the winter to find food and replenish energy, but the bat is too weak.
Within first being discovered nine years ago, white-nose syndrome has been attributed to the over 90 percent population decline of bats in New York.
“Bats, until recently, have been really, really common. It’s primarily the observed decline of bats in their caves due to white-nose syndrome. There’s a 90 percent decline in species that were really common,” said Gifford.
One species, the little brown bat, used to be as common as chickadees, Gifford said, with the population number in the billions.
“I liken it to, imagine if robins or chickadees when, in the scope of a year, from as abundant as they are now to the brink of extinction,” he said.
Niver said six of the nine species in the state are affected by the disease—the little and big brown bats, eastern pipistrille, small-footed and northern long-eared. The other three, the hoary, silver-haired and eastern red bats, migrate instead of hibernate during the winter.
While the end-product is to help bring the bat population back up and eliminate white-nose syndrome, Niver said the first thing to do is get a general baseline of information of which bats actually live in the Pine Bush and if their habitat is being sustained.
“How can we work together to conserve those bats while still managing for the needs of other people and resources in the area?” she said.