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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

Fatal awakening

Caves have year-round closings in an effort to save the Indiana bat

Weighing as much as a AA battery, the Indiana bat may be small, but biologists are energized to help keep them from extinction.

Deep in Wyandotte Caves, thousands of bats cling to the walls during their winter slumber, their bodies clustered together for warmth in the stony abyss. A blockaded cave entrance keeps the world from wandering into the danger zone. One species in particular, the Indiana bat, lies in wait. It isn't your blood that they are seeking. It's help.

Biologists across the nation are working together to bring the Indiana bat out of the danger zone of extinction. From habitat loss to disturbing them during hibernation, this creature of the night is struggling to survive. Winter is the most crucial time during the bat's hibernation period. Waking them up is a rude awakening, one that can cost them everything.

Research in action

Biologists, such as Andy King of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, must wear a protective suit when conducting their surveys. The suit looks as if he is preparing to handle hazardous chemicals rather than preparing to enter the cave. He explains that everything entering the cave must be sterilized in order to keep from tracking any contaminants in. The spread of the bat disease White-Nose Syndrome has been linked to cavers tracking it from cave to cave, unknowingly wiping out millions of bats.

"We do our winter survey every other year to minimize disturbances," King says. This winter, bat biologists in over a dozen states will be going into caves to tally the Indiana bat. An endangered species since 1967, the Indiana bat is a priority for researchers. During hibernation season, Indiana is home to 50% of the nation's population of bats with over 200,000.

In an effort to reduce disturbances, caves have begun year-round closings. Wyandotte looks desolate and abandoned since its closure in 2010. The empty office building and barricades leading to the parking lot presents the urgency to the public that the bats are in danger. Tree branches litter the paths towards the two caves as a reminder that the best option for the bats is for people to both educate themselves and stay away.

During a survey inside the cave, King and his small team will descend the stairs into an area filled with over a dozen species of bats. The front of the cave has a sensor called a "GateKeeper" that analyzes every bat that passes through. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources installed it and an ultrasonic detector in Wyandotte in order to detect not only the number of bats passing through, but also the type of bat based on their sounds.

With their headlamps, the biologists will analyze the walls and ceiling for a large cluster of brown bats. "Indiana bats form the densest clusters of our bat species," King says. Once found, King raises his camera to take several

pictures of the group. A cluster can contain upwards of 500 bats. "With one photograph you have a permanent record," he explains. "Our software will dot all the noses in the cluster to give an accurate account."

King says that it was hard to convince seasoned researchers to convert to the new survey methods, but the accuracy is hard to deny. "In the past they would use a ruler to measure the cluster and use a formula of 300 bats per square foot to figure out an estimate on how many there were," King says. During the last survey, 220,000 Indiana bats were counted, which was a 5 percent increase. This is credited to the better counting methods.

Another reason to change their methods, though, was that no matter how careful surveyors were, some bats would wake up during the procedure. King remembers that it used to take more than an hour to measure the clusters with the rulers and look for any sickness among them. While the average person might be cranky to be woken up by strangers shining lights on them, disturbing the bats during hibernation can be fatal for them. It can cause them to use up their fat reserves and hinder their chances of surviving the winter.

Today, the team members collect their data in hushed whispers and within 15 minutes are exiting the cave. Glancing around, King notices that not one bat is flying around. "It was sort of a home-run from my perspective," King says. "It's less time in the cave and you have a permanent record."

Closings for conservation

Georgia Parham is the public affairs coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department in Bloomington. She says that their office has been leading the fight to bring back the Indiana bat population. Their efforts to keep the public from disturbing the bats during the winter led to a small comeback during the late '90s, but White-Nose Syndrome has put the species back in danger of extinction.

A discovery in New York three winters ago changed everything. Bats were found crawling through the snow and trying to sunbathe on house windows. When large groups of starved dead bats were found around the caves, biologists discovered white fuzz on their noses. WNS is a fungus that thrives in dark cold spaces. As the bats sleep they are vulnerable to the fungus growing and irritating their skin. Wildlife biologist King describes WNS as similar to leaving food in the fridge and weeks later finding a layer of mold on it. Bats wake up to wings covered in holes and a fungus on their faces. Unable to help themselves, the bats stay awake and begin to starve. As a last struggle to survive, they weakly leave the cave in search of insects.

While people can't contract WNS, closing the caves keeps them from tracking contaminants of WNS from one cave to the next. Parham says to the closings buy more time to understand how to fight the epidemic. The population of Indiana bats currently ranges from the East Coast to Iowa, and biologists want to keep this endangered species and others from being wiped out.

Last summer, construction of I-69 was halted when biologists realized that it crossed right through Indiana bat maternity colonies. Construction laborers were prohibited from cutting down any trees larger than three inches in diameter between April 1 and November 15. In addition, loose bark trees favorable to the Indiana bats will be planted in new areas. Richard Davis of the Clifty Falls State Park Nature Center says these guidelines ensure that construction projects must pass a test to see how they impact the environment.

Parham also says that as our world advances with technology, so should the research to ensure the changes don't push an endangered species towards extinction. For example, wind energy is growing around Indiana as a cheaper and efficient way to harness a never-ending source. But the turbines can affect the bats.

"There is a lot of work going on right now to study wind turbines and bats to make sure that the facilities aren't causing problems for bat populations," Parham says. Researchers have been looking into starting the turbines at higher speeds during a time that there would be the least amount of bat activity. Their hopes are to allow both the wind facilities to provide the clean energy and have the bats be in a safe environment.

Since her office opened, Parham's staff has been diligently working to bring back the Indiana bat populations. Their main focus is divided into research, looking into White-Nose Syndrome, factors like wind energy with impacts on bat populations and habitat conservation. By thoroughly examining these areas to provide the Indiana bat and all bats with the optimum environment, populations can begin to soar once more.

Behind the wings, through the eyes of an Indiana bat

Bats to many are thought of with a shudder due to the horror movie industry portrayal. 812 would like to present a softer side to this little misjudged fella to show a season from its perspective.

My earliest memories are of warm summer air and being safely tucked under some loose tree bark with Momma. There were bright lights exploding in the night sky as if to celebrate my coming into this world. It might be Independence Day to the country, but I think my birthday trumps this holiday. As Momma's only baby that summer, I knew I was special.

At the age of one month I learned how to fly. Momma said that there were fewer pups and mothers at our summer retreat than previous years, but that just meant more bugs for me. Night insects never stood a chance with the wind under my wings and my expert predator vision. On a good night I was able to feast on more than 3,000 of my favorite treats.

I wished summer could last longer so that I could fly more, but Momma said when it got cold, it was time for the big bedtime, or hibernation, as I've heard the grown-ups say. The good thing was that the closer it came to winter, the more insects I got to eat. Extra fat might not be the most attractive for you, but Momma says its good to be chubby. It made me look older and ready to hibernate for the first time.

It was bittersweet to leave behind our cozy tree and fly into the dark cold cave. I had never seen so many bats before and stayed close to Momma. Everyone formed a huge blanket across the ceiling and settled down to sleep. Even though the adults only the size of two human thumbs, our cluster is several feet long with hundreds of noses. I snuggled into the group and Momma assured me that in no time I would be terrorizing the skies again.

Bat Myths

While bats are creatures of the night, the horror movie industry has created many misconceptions.

  • "I vant to drink your blood!" Only three out of 1,200 species of bats drink blood. Your neck is safe as the diet of choice for the Indiana bat is 3,000 insects a day.
  • A bat's first reaction when startled is to fly into your hair. All wild bats are born with instincts to avoid humans when possible. Their eyesight comes with perfect night vision and is used to swiftly navigate tight spaces in caves with ease.
  • Bats are nothing more than a nuisance. Bats are the best insect repellent nature can produce. Fruit bats pollinate plants as they move from tree to tree.
  • All bats have rabies. Less than 1 percent of bats have rabies, and if contracted, they die.
  • Rats with wings. Bats are not members of the rodent family. They are classified in their own group called "Chiroptera," which means hand-wing.
  • All bats look the same. From a distance, many species of bats can be confused, but they are not identical. The Indiana bat is usually 2 inches long, brown with pink lips and hibernates in large clusters.

Public Tips

Bat in your house: Remain calm if you find a bat flying in your house and keep both children and pets away. Close the doors to each room and open an outside door to give the bat an escape route. If it doesn't leave, wait until he lands to catch him. Never attempt to catch a bat with bare hands so wear thick leather or similar work gloves (not cotton).

Report a problem: If you find any sick, injured or dead bats visit the Indiana U.S. Fish and Wildlife Website. Here you will be able to find the contact information for the local office in your district.

Caving/Spelunking: Those wishing to enter caves should avoid those with hibernating bats. While not all caves with bats are closed year-round, a tip to protect them from White-Nose Syndrome is to clean or change clothes and shoes in between caves to reduce the chance of tracking the disease from one cave to another.

For further tips to handle bat situations visit the Humane Society.