An estimated 6.7 million bats have died in the United States since 2006, the cause being a fungal outbreak known as white-nose syndrome.
The largest bat population hit by the disease, the northern long-eared bat, is native to Long Island, and the nocturnal mammals can be spotted hunting for insects all throughout the night on the East End.
On Saturday, November 16, at 7 p.m., the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton will host a lecture about the native species with Samantha Hoff, a Ph.D. student at the State University of New York at Albany, who has been working for the past few years with the animals, researching the deadly white-nose syndrome — a disease that harms hibernating bats, caused by an easily spreadable fungus.
The fungus, pseudogymnoacus destructants, creates white fuzz on bats’ faces, and anywhere else where there is bare skin, including their fragile wings. It grows in cold, dark and damp places, typically in areas where bats like to hibernate, such as caves.
Usually, when bats hibernate, they are almost fully inactive. But when they are affected by white-nose syndrome, they wake up often. They can even be seen flying outside in the winter during the day, causing them to end up burning valuable fat that they need in order to survive the winter. Because of the disease, they end up dying of starvation and dehydration.
Paul King III, an educator at SOFO, explained that the disease is fairly recent, having first been discovered in New York in 2006. Scientists believe the invasive fungus came from Europe. By 2016, the disease had spread to more than half of the United States, and five Canadian provinces, killing millions of bats.
Since the disease arrived in the country in 2006, northern long-eared bats have experienced some of the most severe symptoms of all the bats, leading them to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Ms. Hoff has been studying the populations that are able to persist by tracking bats to find hibernation sites. She has been studying winter activity patterns and the availability of insect prey, and testing for prevalence of the disease, to help determine how scientists can help the species survive.
Ms. Hoff has been studying populations of northern long-eared bats in coastal communities in the Northeast, including on Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The northern long-eared bat is no longer than 3.7 inches in length, with a wingspan spreading to 10 inches. Because of the white-nose syndrome, the northern long-eared bat species was listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their fur and wings are brown, their ears are longer than other bat species, and they have a longer tail that gives them more maneuverability during flights.
“Formerly a common species, northern long-eared bats are now rarely encountered on the landscape throughout much of their range due to devastating population declines resulting from white-nose syndrome,” Ms. Hoff said. However, populations of bats off the coasts of the Northeast are persisting more so than populations upstate, despite exposure to the disease.
The visible signs of the white-nose syndrome show the disease is in a later stage, the bats showing the fungus on their wings and muzzles are already dealing with the life-threatening disease. The infection causes bats to use energy twice as fast as healthy bats.
Miles Todaro, an educator a SOFO, said the study is aimed to survey the bats on Long Island, and in other coastal areas in particular, because the bats in those areas aren’t affected as much as the bats that reside in caves.
Volunteers have been setting up acoustic surveys across the island using recording devices to pick up on the bats’ noises to get a handle on the Long Island population.
“You’ll see bats if you go out in the evenings,” Mr. Todaro said. “Especially in the summer. They go wherever insects are.”
Although there are no caves on the East End, Mr. Todaro and Mr. King explained that bats can be found sleeping upside down in trees, on bluffs or in homes’ crawl spaces. SOFO recently had an Eagle Scout construct a bunch of “bat boxes” in their backyard — small boxes similar to birdhouses for the bats to live in.
According to Mr. King, nationwide, bats save farmers $22 billion per year in pesticide costs, because they eat swarms of bugs and increase crop yields.
“The bats form such large groups that they almost look like a storm on a weather radar — people confuse them for storms sometimes — and they eat thousands and thousands of insects,” Mr. King said, adding that bats are the only mammals that are able to fly.
Bats use echolocation to navigate through the night sky and find food in the dark. Some species live up to 30 years.
Most bat populations are in decline due to habitat loss, Mr. Todaro said, adding that white-nose syndrome is adding to the mass mortality rate.
“Bats are a really important predator for the insects we consider pests,” Mr. Todaro said. “White-nose syndrome is a really recent and bad situation for bats.”
The more scientists learn about the deadly fungal syndrome, the closer they can come to stopping it or slowing down the spread.
Ms. Hoff will educate about these bats and the devastating disease that affects them in this free lecture at SOFO, open to the public. Advance registration is required. Call 631-537-9735 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up.