We were recently introduced to a sister organization in Michigan; the “Points North” podcast from Interlochen Public Radio. It feels a bit like discovering a long-lost sibling! Our minds are sparking with wonder and excitement.
“Points North” describes itself as a “biweekly podcast about the evolving land, water and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes. It’s about where we are and how we move forward.” Sound anything like “Agate Magazine?”
After some pleasant conversations with “Points North” producer Dan Wanschura, we are pleased to share a recent story, “Bat Gadgetry: High-Tech Solutions to a Deadly Problem.”
As most of us know, a deadly fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short, was discovered in bats in North America about 15 years ago. I learned about how it affected Minnesota bats, but hadn’t heard much about it recently. This story introduces us to some innovative experiments designed to help bats afflicted by this destructive disease.
Enjoy the following story by Patrick Shea, adapted for AGATE from the transcript of his podcast on Points North.
In 2007, bat biologists in upstate New York headed deep into a cave for an annual winter survey. In past years, they’d count bat colonies tens of thousands in strong roosting on the ceiling. But that winter, they found an unpleasant surprise: heaps of dead bats on the cave’s floor.
They’d stumbled upon the first known case of a disease now called white-nose syndrome. It’s caused by a fungus that thrives in dark, damp environments and can grow on a bat’s skin.
“It digs into their epidermal tissue,” said Tina Cheng, a data scientist with Bat Conservation International. “When they’re really highly infected, they actually have these little white fuzzy patches of fungal growth on their noses. Hence the name white-nose syndrome.”
That early case in New York killed off almost an entire colony of Indiana bats, an endangered species. Today, the fungus has spread to caves all across North America.
When a cave gets infected, it spells disaster for the bats inside.
“Mortality can be greater than 90 percent on average at a site,” said Cheng. “And so when you have a colony that can get into the tens of thousands, that is just unprecedented carnage.”
Right now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding whether to put two more bats on the endangered species list: the northern long-eared and tri-colored bats. Both were once abundant in the Great Lakes region; both have been decimated by white nose syndrome.
In an effort to prevent the extinction of these and other bat species, they first need to track the problem and test some solutions.
Near the tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, Breanna Gusick descends a soggy staircase into total darkness. The Delaware Mine is one of many abandoned mines in Keweenaw county. But Gusick, a research technician with Bat Conservation International, isn’t here in search of copper.
Past surveys at this abandoned mine found thousands of bats taking advantage of the man-made hibernaculum. But in recent years, they’re sparsely spread along the cave’s ceiling. White nose syndrome arrived in Keweenaw County around 2014.
Breanna points towards a little brown bat – the species’ name, not description – bundled up in its own wings.
“He’s not even shivering, so he’s not trying to wake up,” Gusick said. The way white-nose syndrome kills a bat is by interrupting this stoic sleep. It’s safe to assume the fungus growing all over their face and up into their nostrils is a bit uncomfortable.
“They’ll start shivering to get their body temperature up,” said Gusick. “That’s what they do when it’s time to leave the cave. But when it happens early, it burns energy they’ll need later that spring.”
Infected bats usually die of exhaustion and hunger—either right there in the cave, or shortly after leaving it. And when bat populations started declining around Keweenaw County, people noticed the difference.
“I remember as a kid we used to have one of those flood lights outside, and we’d see bats swarming,” said Kyle Seppanen, wildlife coordinator for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
Seppanen said in those summers of his youth, he remembers the mosquitos being bearable; just a part of life Up North.
“But it feels like the past couple of summers, especially, you’re walking out there and you’re just hitting them left and right.” White-nose syndrome is to blame for this, according to Seppanen, and there’s evidence that fewer bats means more bugs. One little brown bat alone can easily eat up to 1,000 mosquitos in just an hour.
Seppanen has been monitoring bats on the reservation for the past six years. He’s not alone in noticing the buggier summers since then.
“Last year was the first time I ever put a mosquito net on my head, because I was just so overwhelmed by it,” said Austin Ayres, a wildlife technician with the tribe.
“It almost felt like it was raining, just the amount of mosquitoes that were dropping on me,” Ayres said. “Landing on my hands, my shoulders, my face. It was pretty overwhelming. And that’s the first time I ever thought ‘wow, we’re having a problem with bugs right now, aren’t we?’”
Ayres and Seppanen both agree that bugs can be a major nuisance. But they say the problem is a lot bigger than their own discomfort.
“One of our relatives is suffering,” said Ayres. “And as Anishinaabe it’s one of our teachings that we are the caretakers of this land and the animals that inhabit it.”
Bats, specifically, are at the center of one traditional story that ties into the work Seppanen and Ayres do now.
It starts with the sun getting caught in a tree, stalling the sunrise. Then, a squirrel chews the tree’s branches, and frees the sun. But it comes at a cost. “It got so burnt up that it couldn’t see anymore,” said Ayers. “So, Creator granted them echolocation and said ‘you’re going to fly just as good as the other birds. You’ll stay out at night because the sun will be too bright for you.’”
The squirrel had transformed into a bat. It’s a story that suggests a knowledge of echolocation dating back long before any scientific observation of the phenomenon.
“We call it traditional ecological knowledge,” said Ayers. “The reality is that our people are so old and we’ve lived for so long that we’ve watched evolution occur. And so when we tell traditional stories, it’s got that tied into it.”
Now, echolocation is used to track the spread and impact of white nose syndrome, and it could someday be used to treat the disease.
Seppanen uses sound to track bat populations: audio recordings of bat calls. That doesn’t give him an exact number of bats, but it does indicate when there’s an increase or decrease in bat activity. It also shows him where the most popular bat hangouts are.
At the edge of a wetland, Seppanen points towards one of his most productive spots for recording bat calls. It’s part of the Kelsey Creek system, flowing into Lake Superior. The creek provides a natural flyway, a sort of corridor for bats.
“This spot’s been heavily impacted by beaver use, so there are lots of dams and pockets of open water for bats to take a drink from,” said Seppanen. “There’s insects all over the place here. So I have a detector sitting over next to that dead tree that’s standing right there.”
That detector looks pretty simple. It’s a long pole with a microphone on top. But what it does is remarkable.
As the Anishinaabe have known for thousands of years, bats get around using echolocation. They make sounds that bounce off of objects and back to their ears. That tells them where not to fly, and where the bugs are. But those are sounds our ears can’t pick up. These acoustic monitors record echolocation calls, and represent them visually.
Back at his office, Seppanen looks at the shape of WAV files to identify which species of bat is making the sound. “With big brown bats, you can tell they’ve got that big steep slope on it. And at the very end of it, the pitch always comes down,” said Seppanen.
He plays an amplified version from his computer. It’s a strange and rapid sound reminiscent of a laser-beam in a science fiction movie. A slow-motion version sounds more like a bird of prey.
The tribe’s acoustic monitors show a decline in these calls, as well as calls from little brown, tri-colored and northern long-eared bats. Those species are all highly susceptible to white-nose syndrome.
Seppanen uploads these bat calls to an international database so biologists can see the big picture. They can search for white-nose syndrome in areas that seem to show a decline, and odds are, they’ll find it.
This acoustic monitoring is valuable on a local level, too. It shows where the most popular spots for bats are around the reservation. If some sort of cure is discovered, Seppanen will know the best places to find and treat bats.
Bat Conservation International is trying out one treatment. Tina Cheng was involved in starting what she calls the “fat bat program.”
“There was a researcher in Pennsylvania who noticed that some of the bats that were surviving and persisting through the disease wave were really fat. Much fatter than he had noticed previous to the disease,” said Cheng.
Tina and her colleagues wondered if maybe that was the key: to get the bats fat enough to make it through the winter, even if they’re infected with the fungus. To test that theory, they set up experiments at caves and mines around the country, including the Delaware Mine in Keweenaw County.
Outside the mine shaft, Breanna Gusick checks to make sure the experiment is running smoothly. She tinkers with solar panels and high-tech research gear, set up in the midst of antique mining equipment. The wooden platform where trains used to load copper is still visible, creating a strange blend of historic artifacts and futuristic gadgets.
A small, halo-shaped ultraviolet light bulb is programmed to turn on and attract swarms of bugs each night. Gusick calls it a “bug buffet.” When bats emerge weakened from white-nose syndrome, the hope is that this living cache of insects will build up their strength.
The previous winter, biologists inserted tiny microchips into the backs of about 300 bats here. When the bats fly through a hoop-shaped scanner near the bulb, it detects those microchips and identifies individual bats.
“If the bats keep coming back to the same places to hibernate and they’re tagged, we see when they come back and leave and hopefully can see their survival too,” said Gusick.
Breanna will share the data from this scanner with her colleagues—people like Tina Cheng, who sifts through data from bug buffets in seven different states.
“We’re really trying to expand geographically to first test the concept of ‘if you build it, will they come?’” said Cheng. “If you build it, will the bugs come? Will the bats come? And will the bats actually use these bug buffets to forage?”
They’ve only been trying this for three seasons. Cheng, like a good data scientist, said it’s too early to tell if this project will curb the impacts of white nose syndrome. Plus, she doesn’t want to give too much away.
“We’re working on publishing our initial results,” said Cheng. “But—spoiler alert—we have found that bats do indeed come. We have evidence that bats are actually using these bug buffets.”
White-nose syndrome is by no means a good thing, but Cheng sees a bright side. She said scientists are gaining a lot of critical knowledge as they respond to this disease.
“This has driven a ton of research to help us understand bat natural history and bat immunology. And I will say that even beyond bats, wildlife disease is a discipline that is gaining a lot of attention,” said Cheng. “Not only because it often links up with human health, but because it’s actually placing a lot of pressures on global biodiversity.”
Other research projects are looking into vaccines and fumigation to treat the fungus directly. But in the meantime, Cheng is hopeful that these bug buffets will lead to fatter bats and less carnage in caves.
This story was adapted from Points North, a narrative podcast about the land, water, and inhabitants of the upper Great Lakes. You can listen and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or at pointsnorthpodcast.org.
Patrick Shea is an environmental reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana’s graduate school. Patrick has published stories with Energy News Network, Earth Island Journal, The Progressive, Native News Online and more.