UD grads research white-nose syndrome in bats

November 2, 2011 under CANR News

Erin Adams devotes “99 percent” of her work hours to bats — in particular, to white-nose syndrome in bats — as a research assistant in the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife. But her interest in these creatures of the night was sparked many years ago.

A 2007 graduate of the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Adams was required, as a wildlife conservation major, to take a course in mammalogy. She quickly discovered that her favorite taxonomic group didn’t win any popularity contests with her fellow classmates.

“Everyone loves the cuddly creatures or the big, attractive mammals – the polar bears and the wolves,” says Adams. “Me, I’ve always liked the underdog; I think that’s why I was drawn to bats.”

Bats are the only mammals capable of sustained flight; nonetheless, they don’t get a lot of respect from humans. Bats have long been associated with witchcraft, ghosts, death and darkness (hence their prominence in Halloween decorations). They’ve been called “birds of the devil” and, if you believe the novel Dracula, they can transform into vampires.

But Adams knows that only vampire bats drink blood (and even they don’t turn into vampires, last she checked). Instead, most bats are prodigious insect-eaters.

The little brown bat, found here in Delaware and the species most impacted by white-nose syndrome, can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes an hour. Considering that West Nile virus, Eastern equine encephalitis and many other diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes, Adams would like to be able to say that the little brown bat population is on the upswing.

But the reality is just the opposite. Due to white-nose syndrome, little brown bats are dying in record numbers throughout the Northeast.

White-nose syndrome was first identified in 2006, when large numbers of dead bats were found in caves in New York. The fungus associated with the disease was found on bats in Delaware in April 2010 and has been seen as far south as Tennessee and north into Canada. It appears to be specific to bats and has not affected humans, pets or livestock.

Little brown bats appear to contract the fungus while hibernating, not during the summer breeding season in Delaware, according to Holly Niederriter, a wildlife biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife who leads the state’s research efforts on white-nose syndrome and who, like Adams, is a UD grad.

Little brown bats over-winter in caves. Since Delaware has only one small cave, most little browns likely migrate in the winter to caves in nearby parts of Maryland, New Jersey or Pennsylvania.

“We don’t know if the fungus can spread when the bats are together in their summer maternity colonies,” says Niederriter. “Right now our research is focused on gathering information through bat surveys. Some of this work involves catching and sampling the bats to assess their health – for example, unusually heavy scarring of the wings is indicative of disease.”

“And we use lots of volunteers to count bats at known colonies to see if populations are decreasing,” she says. “It’s going to take more research to see results; we don’t yet have answers.”

Niederriter and Adams understand the urgency of their task; they know that the little brown bat could be running out of time.

“Bat biologists predict that white-nose fungus could lead to total extinction of the little brown bat in northeastern U.S. within two decades,” says Niederriter.

Delaware is home to eight documented species and two other possible species. The most common species in the state are the big brown, tricolored and Eastern red. Although most of Delaware’s bats are likely migrants, many also over-winter here, finding shelter in tree cavities, under bark, in buildings and other cool spots.

Adams is responsible for recruiting volunteers to assist with counts and catches. “I get volunteers of all ages, from all walks of life,” she says. “I really enjoy the opportunity to connect with the public and see people get excited about bats the way I am.”

UD grad student Jenny Caldwell is one such volunteer. This past summer, she counted bats at a colony in Newark, once in early June, before the new season of babies (known as pups) was born, and again in late July when the juveniles were flying.

“It’s an important thing that the state is doing, trying to figure out what’s going on with white-nose syndrome,” says Caldwell. “I was happy to help with the count.”

To get involved

If you’d like to help monitor the state’s bat population during the 2012 Bat Count, call Erin Adams at 302-735-8669.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo courtesy Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation

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Study to quantify turbine impact on birds and bats

March 7, 2011 under CANR News

A study will quantify the impact of the wind turbine at UD's Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes on birds and bats.

The University of Delaware’s 2-megawatt wind turbine is the site of new research that will help answer a common question about the alternative energy producers: How do they affect birds and bats?

The two-year project, which will assess the mortality risk of birds and bats around the turbine, is led by UD Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology researchers Jeffrey Buler and Gregory Shriver. It is funded by First State Marine Wind, a partnership between UD-owned Blue Hen Wind and turbine manufacturer Gamesa. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) also committed funds to support the effort.

A complementary project at the wind turbine that focuses solely on bats is being conducted by an expert at Delaware State University and is funded by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

While a University-commissioned pre-construction study found that the turbine’s impacts on birds are likely to be minimal, that study also recommended that UD undertake post-construction monitoring. One motivating factor is the machine’s location at UD’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, which sits along an important international flyway stopover for migrating birds. UD and Gamesa thus placed a priority on this research once the turbine was up and running (it began producing power in summer 2010).

The research also fulfills UD obligations under the federal National Environmental Policy Act. UD has been working closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DNREC and other stakeholders on the scope of the study.

“The results of the study will be useful for other coastal communities considering wind turbines and ought to provide some useful lessons for offshore wind energy projects,” said Jeremy Firestone, associate professor of marine policy. Firestone is a wind energy expert and faculty member in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE) and CEOE’s Center for Carbon-free Power Integration (CCPI).

The UD project began March 1, with spring and fall sampling periods focusing on birds and bats migrating through the area and summer and winter periods on resident bird and bat flight activity.

During each of the four seasons, the researchers will use a variety of techniques to collect data. Acoustic monitoring, visual surveys, radar, and thermal imaging will provide information on bird and bat traffic and flight patterns. Spring and fall carcass searches around the turbine will help determine the fatality rate.

Local and regional weather data, which will help researchers understand bird and bat movement, will be provided by a nearby meteorological tower and the National Weather Service.

“We want to monitor how much bird and bat activity there is in the vicinity of the turbine so we have a context for how much risk there may be for them to collide with the turbine,” said Buler, who specializes in using radar to track bird migration.

The scientists also want to know which birds and bats are moving through the area. Although the main focus is on migrating land birds and bats, other types of birds also occur near the turbine throughout the year. These include raptors, waterfowl, marsh birds, and shorebirds.

The team expects to have a final report of data and analysis completed by December 2013. They will present findings at technical meetings and publish them in scientific journals. The researchers also will share their bat data with Delaware State’s Kevina Vulinec, an expert on the winged mammals whose research looks to determine the type of bats around the turbine and their behavior.

“We are pleased by the collaboration with Delaware State University,” Firestone said. “These research projects are a prime example of how the UD wind turbine can serve as a platform for important research that will benefit society.”

Article by Elizabeth Boyle
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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