White-nose syndrome threatens coastal bats – Picayune Item

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By Mandy Sartain

MSU Extension Service

BILOXI, Mississippi – Across Mississippi, bats provide incredible ecosystem benefits as top predators of nocturnal insects, while also being one of the most misunderstood mammals in the world.

Bats evoke different feelings and thoughts in different people when they appear in the evening sky. Some are impressed by the acrobatics of the flying mammals, while others hesitate to appreciate their nocturnal presence. But there is no doubt that bats are essential players in the environment.

Movies and media have portrayed bats in a bad light for decades, portraying them as bloodthirsty, filthy creatures that get caught in your hair. In reality, bats are exceptional groomers who have mastered the art of elusiveness. Fortunately, the 15 species of bats found throughout Mississippi are all insectivores, meaning they only eat insects.

Leaving their roosts at dusk, the bats spend much of the night gorging near their body weight on night-flying insects. Their nocturnal insect menu includes parasites that cause itchy bites; damage our food crops, gardens and forests; or carry diseases that can be transmitted to our livestock, our pets or ourselves. Bats roost during the day in a variety of different places, including trees, caves, and man-made structures such as culverts, bridges, and abandoned (and sometimes not so abandoned) buildings.

On the Mississippi coast, where caves are non-existent, bats prefer man-made structures and an assortment of tree habitats including hollow tree cavities, exfoliating tree bark, dead vertical trees and even tree foliage. When insect availability is low during cold months, some bats hibernate while others migrate to warmer areas.

In a year-long monitoring effort by a Mississippi State University graduate student, some bat species were found to be active year-round on the coast. This activity could have a lot to do with the mild winters the Mississippi coast experiences compared to other parts of the state. The combination of coastal waterways and forests provide vital habitat for resident and migratory bats as they provide roosting sites, ample foraging opportunities, and sources of fresh water.

Unfortunately, Mississippi bats face many threats: habitat loss, roost destruction, and human prejudice. Another major danger is White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a disease that causes hibernating bats to become active when their energy and fat stores are low. If food is unavailable for weeks or months, devastating mortalities result from WNS.

This disease has wiped out colonies of bats hibernating in caves due to the proximity of caves and the contagious nature of the disease. Just recently, WNS was confirmed in Mississippi in a tricolor bat in a culvert in Montgomery County. Three-colored bats are now considered protected under the Endangered Species Act, as ongoing monitoring for WNS is carried out by researchers from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

As overwintering cave bats become increasingly vulnerable to WNS, coastal forests in Mississippi could become key habitat for southeastern bats that migrate to the region for the summer and maternity season. . To increase bat conservation and education on the Mississippi coast, an MSU graduate student at MSU’s Coastal Research and Extension Center monitors bat presence and activity in the savannah forests of coastal pines.

To learn more about bats in Mississippi, see the Mississippi Bat Working Group for research and information. For coastal bat education and awareness, contact me at [email protected]

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