Non-invasive Surveillance of Bat Hibernacula to Investigate Potential Behavioral Causes of Mortality Associated with White Nose Syndrome

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White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) is a devastating disease that threatens the survival of hibernating bats in North America. Since first documented in the winter of 2005/2006, WNS has spread from a very small area of New York across at least two thousand kilometers and half or more of states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada.

A non-invasive monitoring camera for bat research.

USGS has for the first time non-invasively monitored the hibernation behaviors of bats over entire winters. Here are weatherproof thermal-infrared and near-infrared video surveillance cameras deployed near hibernating bats in a Virginia cave. Paul Cryan, USGS photo.

Over five million bats are estimated to have died during the past decade from WNS, and all 4 federally listed endangered species and subspecies of hibernating cave bats are in harm’s way. The sudden and widespread mortality associated with WNS is completely unprecedented in hibernating bats and it is not anticipated that their populations will recover quickly. An additional 19 species of hibernating cave bats occur in the United States and, considering available information, all are potentially susceptible. WNS is named for the ubiquitous presence of a newly identified species of cold-loving fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans) that is capable of penetrating and infecting the skin and wing membranes of bats during hibernation. It is critical that research efforts directed toward WNS incorporate the expertise of scientists familiar with the ecology of bats and hibernation physiology.

Still image from surveillance video gathered by a near-infrared camera deployed deep in a bat hibernation cave.

Still image from surveillance video gathered by a near-infrared camera deployed deep in a bat hibernation cave. Public domain.

The objectives of this project are to better understand bat hibernation and to assess the possible behavioral mechanisms by which skin infection from the associated fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans) may act to cause bat mortality. We established new methods for observing natural behaviors of hibernating bats by building and deploying remote video surveillance systems inside caves and mines where bats hibernate.  After successfully monitoring the in situ behaviors of hibernating bats over as many as six winters, we are now in the process of analyzing and interpreting these new and unprecedented observations. Video data resulting from this work are beginning to reveal the previously undocumented behaviors of hibernating bats and are offering insight into  how certain hibernation behaviors might help bats survive infection by the WNS fungus.