Written by: Danielle O’Dell, Ecologist/Field Supervisor
Ordinarily, at this time of year as we begin preparing for the upcoming field season, I like to share a summary of the bat-related work that we at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation have conducted, what we’ve learned and what our plans are for the year ahead. However, 2020 has shaped up to be no ordinary year for any of us and our bat work has not been exempted from curveballs thrown our way by the COVID-19 pandemic. I would love to share a few highlights (and a lowlight too) from our work and because we have received some questions and concerns in regards to safety and how our work has been impacted by the pandemic, I’ll share some of those details too.
When most of our other field projects were wrapping up last fall, the bulk of our bat work was just beginning. With extended mild temperatures, we were able to continue mist-netting for Northern long-eared bats much later in the fall than usual. We attached tiny radio transmitters to the bats in the hopes that they would lead us to their Island winter hibernacula. While we were ultimately unsuccessful locating new hibernation sites, we were able to follow the bats in to December, learning a lot about how late in the season they remain active and where they roost. We tracked down many new roost trees in pitch pine forests as well as a few under the trim boards on the outsides of homes in areas we hadn’t found bats previously. We were also lucky enough to catch our first silver-haired bat as it migrated through on its way further south for the winter. This catch was very exciting for us as we very infrequently capture any species other than Northern long-eared bats on Nantucket.
We also continued to collect acoustic data throughout the winter in order to document when or if bats emerged from hibernation periodically to feed and when they became active again in the spring. An acoustic detector in a crawl space suspected to be a hibernation sight picked up calls of Northern long-eared bats in February confirming use of that site! We began seeing calls regularly in late March, marking the end of the hibernation period. Unfortunately, around this same time, a homeowner near the airport reported a dead bat in their outdoor shower. We collected this specimen and shipped it to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for testing to determine the cause of death. Very sadly, this bat returned positive for White-nose Syndrome, a first report for Nantucket County. This news was unwanted for sure, but not entirely unexpected either. We know that Nantucket, and our island neighbors of Martha’s Vineyard and Long Island, are continuing to maintain healthy Northern long-eared bat populations despite exposure to White-nose Syndrome and our work to investigate the mechanisms that allow these populations to persist in coastal areas continues and is now perhaps more important than ever. At the same time as we received word that our bat had tested positive for White-nose, we were alerted to a new Northern long-eared bat maternity colony already forming at a roost on private property. The homeowner is ecstatic to have bats roosting there and has been keeping a close eye and detailed notes on her colony. Her highest count of bats emerging at sunset has been 17!
Normally throughout April and early May, we would have been netting for bats on warmer evenings in order to collect swabs from their wings and muzzles to detect the fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome and gather information on its prevalence. However, we have been unable to do so this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only were we operating under Stay at Home and social distancing guidelines making most fieldwork non-essential or impossible to conduct, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) requested that all bat researchers in North America temporarily cease any bat handling during the height of the pandemic. This was asked out of abundance of caution not for human safety but for the safety of the bats themselves. Was it be possible for humans to spread the coronavirus that was causing COVID-19 to the bats, and if so, what would that mean for our bat populations that are already stressed so terribly by the impacts of White-nose Syndrome? Not having enough information to be certain that we would not be harming the bats, we decided it was best to halt our work for the time being.
We believe we will eventually be able to resume our work once more information becomes available regarding potential impacts to bats. We are currently awaiting guidelines from USFWS on work that can be conducted safely and proper protocols to follow in regards to be PPE to use in order to reduce the chance of spread of COVID-19 to our bats. We expect this will include stringent disinfection of all instruments, and the use of masks, disposable gloves, eye wear, disposable coverings for clothing, etc. Many bat biologists are already quite accustomed to strict PPE protocols to prevent spread of the fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome. Another major consideration will be how available PPE is with a clear priority going to health care workers on the front lines. While we are eager to return to work, we will certainly be waiting for further guidance and widespread availability of PPE.
There is certainly a lot of fear and misunderstanding about the role bats have played in the rise of the pandemic – which is a subject for a whole other blog post! Panic due to this fear has led to reports from around the world of people purposely harming and destroying bat colonies out of the belief that they are spreading COVID-19, which is heart-breaking to hear. We don’t believe that bats are the bad guys in this situation. Bats are our friends and are now perhaps more than ever, in need of protection and conservation measures. We at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation still plan to move forward with our bat research in whatever way, shape, or form that can take over the coming years and will be spreading the message that bats are a key part of our world’s ecosystems, providing critical services including insect and pest control and pollination of thousands of species of plants world-wide. Nantucket should be proud that due to a legacy of land protection, we’ve saved critical habitat for the Endangered Northern long-eared bat as well as other rare plant and animal species! We hope in the future to continue to bring you news of our bat work and hopefully will be able to get back to providing our membership with invaluable experiences such as bat nights featured in the summer of 2019. We might all be dressed a little differently, hidden behind masks, but we are more convinced than ever that there is no better way to learn than to experience the wonders of nature up close and personal.
Be safe! and make sure to get outside for some nature therapy while exploring NCF properties!
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now! www.nantucketconservation.org