Local experts share slow recovery progress for Chautauqua’s bats

Illustration by Ruchi Ghare/Design Editor
Illustration by Ruchi Ghare/Design Editor

Described as “ringworm on steroids,” white-nose syndrome attacks bats in hibernation, shredding their wings and eating away their skin, said Jonathan Townsend, biologist and board member at Greystone Nature Preserve. While not much can be done to prevent bats from getting infected, Townsend said, providing them with stable summer habitats is paramount. 

“If you’ve ever enjoyed tequila, you should thank a bat,” Townsend said earlier this summer in his annual “Listening to Bats” lecture. 

Nine species of bats fly across the night skies of Western New York, he said in the same lecture; five of those species – the little brown bat, the big brown bat, the silver-haired bat, the eastern red bat and the hoary bat – have been seen in Chautauqua. 

“I have not been lucky enough to see all of them, … I’ve only seen two species – the big brown bat and the little brown bat, but because of the white-nose fungus, there are very few little brown bats left,” said Chautauquan Caroline Bissell, noting that she grew up at the Institution and has “always had bats around.”

The white-nose fungus, she said, was brought to the United States from Europe on a caver’s clothing in 2006. The caver, Bissell said, went on to visit Howe Caverns near Albany, New York, where the fungus fell off the clothing. Within a year and a half, she said, the cave was “completely decimated,” and the syndrome spread to Canada, then down the eastern seaboard to southern states like New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. 

During the late 2000s, about 10,000 little brown bats were nestled in attics across Chautauqua, Townsend said. White-nose syndrome, he said, reached the Institution in the winter of 2008-2009, killing little brown bats in hibernation and causing a 90-99% decline of the species.  

Since 2006, white-nose syndrome has killed an estimated 6.7 million bats across North America, making the epidemic “the worst wildlife disease outbreak” in the region, according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s website. 

Stopping the white-nose syndrome, Townsend said, could be achieved by going into infected caves and killing the fungus that causes the disease. The problem, he said, is there are other important fungal species that can be negatively impacted this way. 

“When bats come out of hibernation, their wings will be completely shredded and gone. … With treatment and rehabilitation the bats can be rereleased, and they tend to go through that every year,” Townsend said. 

For female bats, he said, the process of rehabilitation can take so long that they do not have enough time to raise a pup before going back into hibernation and repeating the vicious cycle.

“Slow to reproduce,” Townsend said, the bats tend to only have one pup per season, which makes it difficult for the population to go back to its original numbers even over a decade after the initial outbreak. 

In Ripley, New York, in an attempt to keep bats out of his barn, a man has put up seven bat houses, Bissell said. She said she has been going on little field trips there since the mid-2000s, and while originally, the seven houses were home to 1,700 bats, the white-nose syndrome diminished the number down to 25.

“Last year, we did our count in June, July, and counted roughly 250 little brown bats – it’s coming back extremely slowly. I will never see those numbers in my lifetime,” Bissell said. 

White-nose syndrome, however, is not the only conservation issue that bats are facing, Townsend said. For example, wind turbines across the United States, he said, kill from 500,000 to 1 million bats every year. 

Environmental degradation is another challenge to bat survival. Cutting down trees, dividing land to develop roads or cities, different kinds of pollution all negatively affect bats’ ability to migrate, find shelter and food, according to the U.S. National Park Service’s website. 

Finally, human fear is one of the biggest threats to bats. People are scared of bats, Townsend said, even though we have been living alongside them for “thousands of years in caves, structures, houses and castles.” Genetic lineages of bats on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution, he said, could go as far back as 200 years. 

“Stop being so damn terrified of them,” Bissell said. “(Bats) are not out to hurt people. They’re just making a living, they’re just after the bugs, and when you get one in your house, it’s not after you – it’s a teenage bat that got in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, the mom went one way, and the teenage bat wasn’t paying attention, and now, (it) finds itself in your bathroom or your kitchen.”

Bissell said she has had bats in her own house three different times, with one of the encounters occurring at 2:30 a.m. The visitor, she said, turned out to be a big brown bat, as are most of the bats she rescues. 

In the last three weeks, Bissell freed four bats, she said. Her latest rescue was a young big brown bat that was found sleeping on top of a spatula covered by a small frying pan in a dish drainer. 

If a bat winds up inside someone’s house, Bissell recommended opening a window and turning the lights off: “You can leave one (very low) light on, so the bat realizes it’s nighttime and not daytime, because if you turn all the lights on, the bat is going to think: ‘OK, it’s daytime, I have got to go back to sleep.’”

Bat rescuing also involves some “don’ts.” Bissell said people should not use anything like a tennis racket, a golf club or a baseball bat to move the animal, as they can kill it.  

“People think: ‘Oh, I’m going to use a tennis racket, and I’ll just swing it really gently.’ There’s no such thing as gently with a creature as small as a bat, so I’m just adamant about people not using tennis rackets or anything that delivers bodily harm to the bat,” Bissell said. 

Instead, if the bat lands somewhere inside, she said people can use a small towel to take it outside and put it on a hedgerow. Bats, she said, need air under their wings to take off, so placing them on the ground leaves them extremely vulnerable, as bats can be eaten by many creatures, including woodpeckers, hawks and owls. 

Bissell volunteers to rescue bats trapped inside houses, and said anyone needing her assistance can reach her at 602-999-7718.

“You’ve heard that expression forever – blind as a bat – but bats are not blind. They see perfectly well,” Bissell said. “When I capture them, they’re absolutely terrified, and their little eyes see me perfectly well. It’s just that their echolocation system is so sophisticated that they use it to track their prey.”

With echolocation, Townsend said, a bat can detect something as fine as a human hair in pitch-black darkness. 

Blindness, however, is not the only misconception that has stuck to bats. Bats have long been blamed for rabies, even though less than 1% of them actually carry the virus, Bissell said. 

On the other hand, she said vampire bat saliva has anti-clogging enzymes used in medicine to dissolve blood clots that can otherwise lead to strokes. And that’s not all they do.

“Bats are responsible for reforesting tropical rainforests after they’ve been cleared and pollinating things like agave, (from) which we get tequila, coffee, bananas – all sorts of really important things to humanity,” Townsend said. 

Bats also pollinate big saguaros in Arizona, Bissell said, as bat guano is a fabulous fertilizer.

“Bats are vital to the environment and to the ecology, so people should stop being afraid of them and start understanding that they’re just a little critter that Hollywood has maligned something fierce,” Bissell said.


The author Mariia Novoselia

Mariia Novoselia is a senior at Western Kentucky University studying journalism with a minor in political science. Born and raised in Odesa, Ukraine, she previously attended Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University. She has experience writing for student publications and interning at a local newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Summer 2023 will be her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua, where she will be covering environmental issues. Mariia is also a music enthusiast, and when not writing, she enjoys singing and playing the guitar.