A Destructive Disease Is Killing Ohio’s Night Hunters

When the sun goes down, the bats come out. But a devastating disease is putting these nocturnal creatures at risk.

How are our nocturnal neighbors doing? Sadly, not so well. All 11 species of bat in Ohio have undergone population declines in the last few decades. Every species is now protected, listed as endangered, threatened, or as a species of concern, says Ohio Division of Wildlife biologist Eileen Wyza. Little brown bats, Indiana bats, tricolored bats, and northern long-eared bats are struggling the most, Wyza says. Their numbers have dropped a staggering 96 to 99 percent since 2011, when white-nose syndrome was discovered in Ohio.

White-nose syndrome is a disease caused by an invasive fungus that grows on bats’ noses. The fungus, which is believed to have come from Europe, irritates hibernating bats, causing them to wake up more frequently and depleting their energy reserves. Eventually, the bats die from exhaustion and malnutrition. White-nose syndrome continues to kill bats in the state, Wyza says, but the Division of Wildlife is monitoring and protecting healthy populations. “The good news,” she says, “is we are still seeing all of our bat species in Ohio.”

Despite common misconceptions, not all bats hibernate in caves—half of Ohio’s species are migratory tree bats that travel to warmer temperatures within their territorial ranges when it gets cold in Ohio. Their numbers are down, too, because of a decline in forested habitats and people’s proclivity to remove dead standing trees. Bats are unique and worth keeping around, Wyza says. They’re the second most diverse group of mammals in the world, with about 1,400 species living all over the globe, from polar regions to isolated islands. They also play an essential role in pest control, eating scores of insects and saving the farm industry up to $3 billion a year, Wyza says. Others feed on nectar, acting as pollinators, while fruit-eating bats spread seeds.

Photograph courtesy merlintuttle.org

Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis)

Listed on the federal Endangered Species Act since 1966, the Indiana bat is a migratory bat that is colonial in winter and summer, hibernating in caves and mines in the winter.

Photograph courtesy merlintuttle.org

Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus)

Ohio’s largest bat, weighing about 15 pennies, and the most widespread bat species in America. Hoary bats are solitary migratory tree bats, traveling to warmer climates when it is cold and living in the top of trees.

Photograph courtesy merlintuttle.org

Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus)

“Big” is deceptive. They weigh only about 20 grams—roughly the weight of five sugar packets. Ohio’s most common hibernating bat, they’re often the ones found in barns or buildings.

Photograph courtesy merlintuttle.org

Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis)

Migratory tree bats with a beautiful chestnut color, they are the most abundant bat in America. They often hang from trees by one foot, camouflaging perfectly as dead leaves or pine cones.

Photograph courtesy merlintuttle.org

Tricolored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus)

Easily mistaken for large moths and particularly susceptible to white-nose syndrome because of their size. Listed as endangered in the state of Ohio and pending federal endangered status.

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