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Bat Population Drops Sharply at Shaver's Creek

by on June 12, 2013 6:50 AM

The sight of nearly 2,000 little brown bats flying under a summer evening sky is something that Doug Wentzel vividly remembers from his days as an intern at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in 1990.

“You could stand yards away and with a hundred people gathered around the boxes, the bats would fly right over your head and right past your face,” says Wentzel, who is now a program director and staff naturalist at the environmental center. “It was just amazing. And watching that happen that first year in 1990, I was hooked on bats. It was just a spectacle.”

Today, there are only three bats in the boxes that used to house thousands of them.

The little brown bats, also known as brown myotis, roost in the bat boxes at Shaver’s Creek during the summer months to feast on insects that fly around at night. But a fungus found in caves that affects the bats’ hibernation during winter – known as white-nose syndrome – has triggered a dramatic die-off.

According to Wentzel, the white fungus that covers the animal’s face and wing membrane was first seen on dead bats in caves near Albany, N.Y., in 2006. Since that time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates a loss of more than six million bats in North America.

“Caves are dark, cool and moist – it’s the perfect environment for fungus,” Wentzel says. “The fungus doesn’t kill the bats outright. It causes them restlessness in the winter time. It affects their hibernation.”

The disease causes the bats to leave their cave and fly around outside in the winter months, which is uncharacteristic behavior for the animal.

White-nose syndrome was first confirmed in Pennsylvania in 2008. Wentzel says the disease moved closer to the State College area in 2009 when the bat count at Shaver’s Creek was about 1,600. From 2010 to 2012, the count decreased from 920 to 69 little brown bats. This year, only three returned to the bat houses.

This is a concern for humans because bats are one of the top predators of night-flying insects, with a single bat eating thousands of insects a night. Wentzel says bugs that are normally devoured by bats like moths and caterpillars can do more damage to crops as their numbers grow.

“Here was a natural, biological control that is not in place anymore,” Wentzel says about bats eating insects. “It’s something we’ve taken for granted. What does that mean? Does that mean we have to put on more insecticide? Does it mean we need to spray crops more? No one knows because this is unprecedented.”

Since female little brown bats usually only give birth to one pup, Wentzel says, a solution is desperately needed. As the disease continues to spread, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in coordination with state agencies is developing strategies to track and manage white-nose syndrome. But funding seems to be an issue because, as Wentzel puts it, “there may be some people who think, ‘Well, the fewer the bats, the better.’”

Wentzel doesn’t share that perspective.

“For me, personally, it feels lonelier at night not having these bats flying around. I feel as though I’ve been cheated of this sight of just sharing this natural phenomenon with people … it was a magical time to stand out there and watch these bats.”

Click HERE to find out more about the disease and for information on how you can help.

Shawn Christ is a recent Penn State graduate who is working as an intern for
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