For the past three summers, Northland students have helped to monitor bat populations on National Park Service properties throughout the Great Lakes region. Acoustic bat detectors—designed to record ultrasonic bat calls—are placed at a multitude of predetermined locations each year. The Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network, a division of the National Park Service, has relied on these students to help collect and analyze data from nine different national park units.
The data could identify declines in the abundance of certain species; such a decline could indicate the presence of White Nose Syndrome, a deadly threat to local bat colonies.
“A decline could mean White Nose Syndrome has made it into the park, which is a pretty serious concern; of the 26 counties that intersect the parks we’re monitoring, 11 have confirmed cases,” said Al Kirschbaum, a remote sensing specialist who oversees the bat monitoring project.
White Nose Syndrome has killed millions of bats in the United States and Canada and is caused by a fungus that can grow on the hairless parts of a hibernating bat. The fungus irritates and awakens bats, and they waste invaluable energy needed to survive the long winter. “The syndrome has been known to result in entire colony die-offs,” Kirschbaum said.
Although White Nose Syndrome has not been detected within any of the Great Lakes Network parks, five of the nine monitored species have had confirmed cases throughout the region.
Kirschbaum hired four Northland College students and recent graduates in 2018.
Natural resources junior Taylor Pichler was one of them. Focused on fisheries and wildlife ecology at Northland, he surveyed over twenty sites, located in corridors of bat travel like streams, creeks, trails and other clearings throughout the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
“I got to travel by boat, to go hike on an island, and find GPS points,” said Pichler. “It was a pretty nice office.”
At each point, Pichler would set up an acoustic bat detector for seven-to-ten days. These devices record only when triggered by the ultrasonic frequencies of bat calls.
These sound files are then entered into a computer program that can identify the species by its echolocation. A sonogram, or sound graph, provides a visual representation of the calls.
While the diversity and abundance of calls recorded don’t necessarily indicate the total bat population in a park, it can reveal changes in which calls are being heard at a given location year after year, according to Kirschbaum.
“Specifically, we are looking for changes in population sizes for bats that hibernate over winter,” said Abby Keller, also a senior studying natural resources with an emphasis on fisheries and wildlife. Keller spent her summer conducting similar research at Voyageurs National Park near the Canadian border in Minnesota.
“After enough time, the data from over twenty sites around a park could certainly suggest that a species may be experiencing a rise or decline in its local population,” Kirschbaum said.
While some of the work being done in bat conservation involves scenic boat rides and miles of bushwhacking, an average day of work at the office isn’t always quite as immersive. John Hermus, a senior also studying fisheries and wildlife, often spends hours entering raw data recorded by the bat detectors the previous summer. Once the data has been entered, Hermus and Pichler will double check what’s already been entered, re-entering corrected data when needed.
“I took this job because I’ve had some field experience in natural resources but have never been on the data-entering-side of research,” said Hermus. “It’s really important to ensure the overall quality of the data because it will be used in a collaborative effort to assess the status of bat conservation in North America.”
The data is submitted to the North American Bat Monitoring Program, an international database where information is stored from bat monitoring projects across the continent.
“Together, research teams are providing data that could help identify the distribution of White Nose Syndrome, the speed at which it is spreading, and the extent of the fungus’ presence,” said Pichler.
While the official 2018 report has yet to be completed, no evidence of a decline in relation to White Nose Syndrome was detected in any of the surveyed parks in 2017. The Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network is looking to continue the project into the foreseeable future and will hire eight seasonal employees for the summer of 2019.
Photo: Taylor Pichler deploys a bat monitor on Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.