- Associated Press - Thursday, September 17, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - The tiny creature twisted, turned and struggled, caught between a biologist’s gloved fingers. Its mouth was open and eyes squeezed shut like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

Biologists Laura Beard and Nichole Cudworth quickly rattled off the little brown bat’s statistics, analyzing each body part with single beam from a headlamp.

Male. Dark ears. No wing damage. Weight no more than a few grams.

Every bit of information went in a notebook.

“It is one of the most common bats,” said Beard, a nongame bat biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “This bat is one of the most plentiful bats in the United States. It is responsible for most bugs being eaten.”

It’s also dying the fastest.

The little brown myotis, as it is called in the scientific community, lives across most of the United States, and used to hibernate in caves in the northeast by the tens of thousands.

That was before a European fungus called white-nose syndrome began slowly creeping across the country, infecting cave after cave, killing bats by the millions.

Researchers expect the disease to arrive in Wyoming in roughly eight to 15 years. While early speculation said the fungus may not be able to survive in the Cowboy State’s cold, dry caves, recent research shows Wyoming’s bats might not be so lucky.

What started as a Game and Fish Department study to survey Wyoming’s bat populations eight years ago has turned into a race against time to find, categorize and figure out how to save the creatures before it’s too late.

A country without bats would mean more disease-spreading mosquitoes. It would also mean the tragic loss of a native species that, once gone, we cannot bring back, said Gary Beauvais, director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, a research institute at the University of Wyoming specializing in sensitive species.

The northern long-eared bat, which lives in northeast Wyoming, has already been listed as threatened on the endangered species list because of the impact by white-nose syndrome.

“Wyoming used to be considered on the edge of their range; the core of their range was on the eastern part of the U.S.,” Beauvais said. “But now those are gone, and what used to be low-density peripheral locations now may be the last hope for the species.”

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Ask Beard or Cudworth, and they’ll tell you bats are one of the country’s least understood, and most importantly, misunderstood, creatures.

Some reasons are obvious: Bats sleep during the day and appear only at night. It’s hard for people to identify or humanize an animal they never see.

Other reasons are mythological: Possibly because of their nighttime hours, bats have occupied a space in folklore with wolves and snakes as something to be feared.

And there’s the threat of disease.

“People think they carry rabies and bite people and transmit it to people,” Beauvais said. “They carry it, but the frequency they transmit it is extremely low . if you were to rank free-ranging animals from high to low on effects on human health, start with whitetail deer that people hit with their cars.”

People actually know very little specifics about bats compared with other creatures, said Cudworth, Game and Fish’s nongame mammal biologist.

Researchers have documented 18 types of bats that either live within the Cowboy State’s borders or fly though while migrating.

Estimates say one bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in a night, Beauvais said.

But where bats live, and in what densities, is a little more of a mystery.

Which is why Game and Fish has spent the last eight years studying the flying mammals.

The first four years were intended to categorize which bats live in forests. The second four years looked at cliffs and caves.

“A lot of the bats are considered species of greatest conservation need,” Beard said. “But some of these bats were species of greatest conservation need because we did not know a lot about them.”

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The Wyoming surveys began at an opportune time. Estimates predict white-nose syndrome could reach Wyoming as early as 2023. It has already crept as far west as Missouri.

That may seem like the distant future, but Cudworth said now is the time to begin planning.

“What’s going to be the most important for us is knowing about little brown bats because they are a species that have been heavily impacted by white-nose,” she said. “Where do we have them? Where are they roosting? Where do we have adult females so when it comes time to set management objectives we can have the biggest bang for our buck.”

White-nose syndrome won’t kill all of Wyoming’s bats. The fungus lives and thrives in caves and generally infects only those bats who hibernate in them, Cudworth said.

“Like all hibernating animals, bats build up a big fat reserve and that’s what they live off of in the winter,” Beauvais said. “When they become infected with white-nose, it stimulates an immune response, which uses up fat reserves and that tends to make a bat arouse early from hibernation because they run out of food.”

Infected bats then often leave their caves looking for insects in late winter and die of starvation or exposure.

The disease can be spread by cavers carrying spores from the fungus on their shoes or equipment. It is also spread by other bats moving between caves, Beard said.

Once wildlife managers find where the largest number of bats hibernate, they can identify which areas could potentially be closed to recreational cavers, and which ones could be left open, Cudworth said.

Researchers across the country are looking for a treatment for white-nose, Beard said. Any possibilities are still in the testing phase.

In the meantime, biologists such as Beard and Cudworth will continue studying Wyoming bats, trapping them in nets in the darkest of night, recording their statistics and checking for signs of white-nose or any other ailment.

Bats’ demise could mean not only exponentially more mosquitoes but something much more important, Beauvais said.

“The bats we have now in the state represent the end point of an irreplaceable evolutionary trajectory. We have a responsibility to maintain that,” he said. “They have value in their own right, and we say if they stay or go.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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