A Deadly Double Punch: Together, Turbines and Disease Jeopardize Endangered Bats

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an Indiana bat hanging on to a tree trunk
An Indiana bat hanging on to a tree. (Adam Mann via USFWS)

Wind turbine collisions and the deadly bat disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) can together intensify the decline of endangered Indiana bat populations in the midwestern United States, according to a recently published U.S. Geological Survey study

Bats are valuable because, by eating insects, they save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control,” said USGS scientist Richard Erickson, the lead author of the study. “Our research is important for understanding the threats to endangered Indiana bats and can help inform conservation efforts.”

Wind energy generation can cause bat mortality when certain species, including the midwestern Indiana bat, approach turbines during migration. Meanwhile, WNS, which is caused by the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus, has killed millions of hibernating bats in North America and is spreading. The new study found that the combination of these two hazards has a larger negative impact on Indiana bats than either threat alone.

The researchers used a scientific model to compare how wind turbine mortality and WNS may singly and then together affect Indiana bat population dynamics throughout the species’ U.S. range. Findings from the model include:

  • Wind turbine deaths were localized and more likely to affect small sub-populations of bats, whereas WNS was more likely to devastate large winter colonies over the species’ entire range;
  • Together, the two threats reduced the sizes of all Indiana bat sub-populations;
  • WNS had the largest impact on population dynamics, with the most severe potential die-off scenario showing a population loss of about 95 percent; and
  • Despite killing fewer animals than WNS, wind turbines disrupted Indiana bat migration routes, which affected metapopulation dynamics more than WNS did in almost all modeled scenarios. A bat metapopulation consists of separated groups of the same species that interact during migration.

“These findings are useful for wildlife managers because they demonstrate the extra importance of protecting small Indiana bat colonies during the winter to help prevent extinction,” Erickson said. 

WNS is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.

The USGS partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the new study, which is published in the journal PeerJ.

For more information about bats, wind energy and WNS, please visit the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, the USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center and the USGS National Wildlife Health Center websites.

Visit whitenosesyndrome.org to learn about the coordinated response to WNS, led by the USFWS.

This surveillance video from a temperature-imaging camera shows a bat interacting with a wind turbine at about 3 a.m. on a brightly moonlit summer night. (Paul Cryan, USGS)
Map of known Indiana bat fatalities
Counties with known Indiana bat fatalities at wild facilities. The fatalities mapped are those known to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as of April 2015. The figure is from “Indiana Bat Fatalities at Wind Energy Facilities” by Lori Pruitt and Jennifer Okajima, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Indiana Field Office (http://www.fws.gov/midwest/wind/wildlifeimpacts/inbafatalities.html). (Public domain.)