by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Four summers ago, if you went outside at dusk, you were likely rewarded with the fascinating sight of bats diving and swooping for insects. Not only were their flight patterns fun to watch, but each bat was gobbling up thousands of mosquitoes every night.
But the summer of 2008 was the last good year for bats in this state we’re in. The following winter, a disease known as white nose syndrome spread to New Jersey and devastated its bat population, killing an estimated 90 percent of these amazing flying mammals.
“It’s been heartbreaking,” says MacKenzie Hall, a biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect rare and endangered animals.
As of 2008, for example, there were about 30,000 bats hibernating at New Jersey’s largest hibernaculum, the Hibernia Mine in Morris County. Today, the number is down to about 750. Most severely affected have been little brown bats, which were the most common of the nine species found in New Jersey.
White nose disease is named for the fuzzy white fungus that appears on the muzzles, ears and wing membranes of affected bats.
Bats with white nose syndrome become agitated during the cold winter months when they should be hibernating, and behave uncharacteristically by flying outside in daytime. Since there is no food to be found, the bats quickly use up fat reserves and starve.
In early July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced nearly $1 million in grants to 30 states for white nose syndrome research. New Jersey was one of four states chosen for the maximum award of $50,000; funds will be used for counting and banding bats to learn more about their health.
Researchers are visiting barns, attics, eaves, bat houses and other places where summer maternity colonies have been spotted. They trap bats, weigh them, band them, record their age and gender, and determine whether females have been nursing.
They also examine the bats’ wings for scarring, holes and tears due to white nose syndrome, and may use a special ultraviolet light to check for fungus that’s invisible to the naked eye.
Mick Valent, principal zoologist with New Jersey’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program, says researchers want to find out if certain bats have survived white nose syndrome for two full years, and if they have gone on to reproduce.
Next, they hope to find out exactly WHY those bats have survived – whether it has to do with genetics, behavioral changes like hibernating in smaller clusters, or some combination.
If researchers can solve the mystery of how some bats survive white nose disease, perhaps they can find ways to help restore their populations. But it won’t be easy. Bats are among the slowest reproducing animals on the planet, with most species giving birth to only one “pup” per year. Reversing population decline will be slow.
New Jerseyans can help by being aware of bats that may be living on their property and protecting these beneficial creatures. They truly are efficient bug zappers – unlike those ultraviolet light devices, which attract mostly non-biting, pollinating insects. A single bat can consume up to 3,000 mosquitoes in a night!
If you discover bats in your attic or barn, don’t harm them or seal off openings. There still may be pups inside! Consult a wildlife professional, and consider putting up a bat house to provide them an alternative place to roost during the summer.
For more information about bats and white nose syndrome research, visit the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey website at http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/protecting/projects/bat/white-nose. To report a summer bat colony on your property, go to the Rutgers Wildlife Resources Program website at http://wildlife.rutgers.edu/bats/reporting.asp.