Last blog we told you the grim news of white-nose syndrome, caused by an alien fungus, and how it is decimating bat populations in the Adirondacks and across much of the East and Midwest. Here we’ll say a little more about what this means for New York’s Adirondack Park.
What bat species grace our lovely Adirondack Park? Of Earth’s thousand-plus bat species (second most species-rich mammal order after rodents), we have nine.
Eastern Red Bats (Lasiurus borealis), colorful and handsome, live throughout the East, and are migratory and largely solitary, thus not thought to be susceptible to white-nose syndrome (which, again, hits bats in large congregations in winter hibernacula). Equally comely cousins, Hoary Bats (L. cinereus) also migrate south rather than hibernating in caves in winter, and thus may be safe from WNS for now. They can be recognized, for any person lucky enough to get a close look, by their large size and grizzled, or frosted, fur. Another migratory bat of our area, Silver-haired (Lasionycteris noctivagans), enjoys similar good-looks and a relatively safe snow-bird lifestyle.
We are blessed also with four members of Earth’s most widely distributed genus of bats, Myotis, which world-wide includes over a hundred species, living in most temperate and tropical ecosystems. Not at all to judge them negatively for it — their community-mindedness and pacifism (except against their insect prey!) would do proud any human group — but the Myotis bats of our cool area live lifestyles that, alas, make them vulnerable to the alien disease white-nose syndrome. Little Brown (Myotis lucifiga), Eastern Small-footed (M. leibii), Northern Long-eared (M. septentrionalis), and Indiana (M. sodalis) bats all traditionally hibernated in large congregations through winter in caves that maintained constant temperatures.
In the Adirondacks and some other mineral- or coal-rich areas, these bats in modern times discovered mines, and established large winter colonies in those cave-like environments. Since the arrival of WNS, the mines have not been safe for the hibernating bats. Even more than before, it is crucial for people to stay away from these mines (unless part of a research team), lest we further spread the deadly disease.
We also have two other bat species that hibernate communally in large numbers: Eastern Pipistrelles (Pipistrellus subflavus) swarm in autumn, seeking mates before entering cave hibernacula, where they are susceptible to WNS. Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus; probably accounting for many of the bats you still see on Adirondack evenings) use caves or old buildings for hibernacula. Happily, Big Brown Bats appear to be resistant to WNS and they are now our commonest bat.
Coexisting with Bats
Coexisting peaceably with bats means avoiding use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals that bats may ingest through their insect prey or through water; minimizing artificial outdoor lighting, which disrupts natural movement patterns of insects and other wildlife; keeping major infrastructure out of natural habitats; and protecting old forests. This last point needs more attention. As Joan Maloof shows in her wonderful new book Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests, bats are among the many types of wildlife that tend to fare best in old-growth forests with big trees, partly because some bat species roost and nurse their young under the flaky bark of large ancient trees or in cavities of big snags.
We should value and protect bats for many reasons, from utilitarian to ecological to familial. For pure utility (from human perspectives), bats are great allies. They devour some of the insect species that we find vexing, including crop pests; and are telling indicators of overall environmental health. Ecologically, they play vital roles as predators of various insects, and in some regions as pollinators of night-blooming flowers or as seed dispersers. Aesthetically, bats add beauty, wonder, and mystery to the evening woods and the night sky.
Then there is the matter of relatedness: modern taxonomy suggests that bats may be part of a super-order including flying lemurs, tree shrews, and primates. The primate order, of course, includes Homo sapiens — us. You’re closer to bats than you think!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Special thanks to conservation biologist and photographer Larry Master not only for once again contributing beautiful photos for this blog but also for reviewing and correcting it. As always, any remaining errors are the author’s own, and not those of editors or reviewers.