‘We went from having thousands to having a very small number:’ Meet the endangered Indiana bat

by Aja Hannah

Not many know that Summit County is home to a federally endangered nocturnal mammal, the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis). Today, Liberty Park in Twinsburg is home to the largest concentration of these bats in Summit County.

But the Indiana bat population, like many other hibernating bat species, has been steadily declining for more than 50 years.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated Ohio’s Indiana bat population at 2,890 individuals in 2017 — down from 9,261 individuals eight years earlier.

Marlo Perdicas, Park Biologist for Summit Metro Parks, used to go out in the fall to catch and release bats for survey and tagging. “In an hour, we would catch a couple hundred bats. Now, with our acoustic equipment, we are hearing just a handful of bats. We went from having thousands to having a very small number of bats,” she says.

In the winter, Indiana bats typically hibernate in colonies in caves alongside other species of bats. In the summer, they roost under loose bark. As the human population continues to grow, the bats have also been observed taking shelter under bridges and inside buildings.

Dark grey to brown in color, these little fliers typically grow one to two inches long and weigh about a quarter of an ounce, about the weight of three pennies. Indiana bats looks very similar to many other species of bat, including northern long-eared bats, which are also federally threatened. They can only be identified by the size of their feet, length of their toe hairs, or favorite placement within caves. Indiana bats eat a variety of flying insects that live along rivers and lakes.

Indiana bats can travel many miles. Populations have been found as far south as Alabama, up north to New Hampshire and Michigan, west to Oklahoma, east to New Jersey and in their namesake state of Indiana.

The species was listed as endangered in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act because people were entering caves and disturbing the hibernating bats. Grate covers on cave entrances and insect-killing pesticides further impacted the population.

But in this last decade, a new threat has killed tens of thousands of bats. The wicked “white nose syndrome” is a fungal disease which has been threatening North American hibernating bats since 2006.

White-nose syndrome is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short. The fungus likes dark and damp places. It grows on bats’ faces like a white fuzz, hence the nickname. While hibernating in tight clusters in the caves, bats become ill from the fungus and burn off their fat reserves. This causes bats to wake up in the middle of their hibernation and fly around in the daytime in search of insects that aren’t there.

In Liberty Park, the syndrome was first documented in 2011. The five caves in the park are now protected. “We are currently monitoring for progress and we are hoping they recover,” Marlo says. She urges people not to go looking for bats in caves because explorers can transport spores of the fungus on the bottom of their boots.

As of yet, there is no cure for white-nose syndrome. An antifungal has been developed, and it works, but it cannot be applied to hibernating caves because it would kill the natural fungi that grow there and change the ecosystem.

“Somebody built a cave, similar to a mine, thinking that it could be a place where bats hibernate and then could be disinfected in the summer. That’s not really a practical application either. How do you get the bats to start hibernating there?” says Marlo. “Bats also visit multiple cave entrances during their route to breed… and can bring the infection to the cave.”

To help protect endangered bats, residents can fight the commercialization of caves and the spraying of insecticide. Those with dying trees on their property are encouraged to leave the trees standing until the winter when the bats have gone to hibernate in caves. Successful preservation of the bats’ habitat is the easiest way locals can help the little animal.

“In the woods or along the treeline in the backyard, I always recommend leaving trees that have peeling bark. It doesn’t have to be a big tree,” Marlo says.

If citizens find a few bat-tenants hibernating in their attic or barn over winter, Marlo suggests participating in emergence surveys. Wait until spring or summer and count the number of bats that leave the structure. After the bats leave, seal up any potential entrances or exits for the bats. Forms and information for reporting are available from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.

For those fortunate enough to spot a few bats, researchers suggest taking part in iNaturalist, a citizen science program where people take photos of local wildlife. Experts can identify the species and keep a record of where populations live.

For more information on bats, visit the Nature Center at Liberty Park, 9999 Liberty Road in Twinsburg, or call 330-487-0493.

To learn more about iNaturalist, visit SummitMetroParks.org/citizen-naturalists.aspx.

Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate.

Photo used with permission from Marlo Perdicas.