Millions of bats are dying to ‘white-nose syndrome,’ biologists look for hope in NC's Coastal Plain

Biologists investigate why some bats on North Carolina's coast seem to be escaping a fungal disease that's killing bats across the U.S.

The disease that's threatening bats and our ecosystem

GATESVILLE, N.C. — In the last ten years, more than five million bats in the U.S. have died from a fungal disease. This disease, known as white-nose syndrome, has now spread from northeastern states to central and southern states, threatening even more bats. 

"Bats are very important to our ecosystem and we really cannot take risks to lose them," says Han Li, a post-doctoral fellow at UNC-Greensboro who also studies bats and their sounds.

Li explains that bats play a critical role in keeping insect populations in check, saving the farming industry billions on pesticides or other insect prevention methods. They also pollinate some plants including the succulent agave—the source of tequila. Like Li said, they're important to our ecosystem, and at risk—so is there help for our nocturnal, winged friends?

A safe haven for bats in North Carolina

It seems that there may be a safe haven at least. Bats in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina appear to be escaping the disease, and biologists think it may have to do with the habitat.

"I think the habitat is the key," says Li. "This kind of unique combination of water and trees, this kind of swampy bottom level… Put everything together, it’s a good habitat."

But first, wildlife biologists want to make sure the bats are not infected with white-nose syndrome. That's the mission of Brandon Sherrill, Ed Corey and their netting team. Together they investigate the bats of Merchants Millpond State Park in eastern N.C.

"Netting actually gives us a chance to see how the bats are doing physically. So, while we can detect bats acoustically, we’re not able to see how those individuals are faring," says Corey. "So, if an animal’s been exposed to white-nose syndrome, we should be able to see scarring on the wing membranes, on the exposed surfaces like the tail, the nose, things like that."

In order to do this, the team constructs 20-foot nets to capture and observe the flying animals.

"When we’re looking down for a placement for that net site, we’re looking for where vegetation is on both sides of the net, but also we have canopy cover above, so it’s basically funneling bats down that corridor, into our net,” says Sherrill. “We’ll wait to open those nets until closer to dark, when bats would start flying.”

Once they do this, they monitor the nets every eight to ten minutes to ensure any other captured bats are removed.

The challenge of the catch

Catching the bats for observation doesn't always go as planned. On this particular night, the group has difficulty bringing any bats into the net. 

"Last night we were able to do the three nets over at a site nearby and we didn’t have any success in the nets," says Corey. "But this time of year is very challenging, particularly the fact that we had a full moon last night, which can create a lot of problems with capture."

Li, who is working with the team of wildlife biologists, has more luck with his sound detectors.

"Right here we have a recording that is potentially from genus Myotis, which includes northern long-eared bats, little brown bats—a lot of species impacted by white-nose syndrome," he says.

Despite not catching a bat to check for white-nose syndrome, scientists have documented several species of bats that live in this swampy, forested habitat. A habitat that may provide refuge from the fungal threat to this vital species.