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The Battle for Bats

Some years ago when the Newburyport (MA) GOMI team was looking for a new project, the biologist at the Parker River Refuge, our partner, suggested we look into the bat population in Newburyport. She suggested we use a device that would monitor the high frequency chirps and squeaks that would indicate the presence of Bats.

Learn how bats use echolocation and listen to a few different bat calls from the following video by IncredibleBats.


Newburyport is full of old, high-roofed homes and carriage houses that might have possible entry points into the city’s attics. Another potential bat hangout might be the dark and musty recesses of the several bridges and roadway overpasses throughout the city. The student team made a list of suitably creaky and spooky sites that would be approached after dark on summer evenings. The students did some walking explorations looking for likely bat hangouts. At other times they would go by car to multiple sites at different times of day or night looking and listening for clues that would indicate the presence of bats. Interest in the bat mobile study was high, but with only a few of the students with a driver’s license and access to a car, it was difficult to cover all the spots on their target list. The would-be bat whisperers searched high and higher over the area that summer but had little to show for their efforts. The target species we had been looking for were the little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat, both of which appeared to have some sort of fungus on their faces and wings.

In October, following that study, I was hiking and geocaching in northern New Hampshire. One of my geocache searches was located in Lisbon and was locally known as a bat cave. Thinking back to the summer search for bats, I realized this might be another opportunity to see some bats. My fellow hikers and I entered the cave and immediately saw several bats hanging on the cave walls. Some of them appeared to be awake and were slowly moving around. As we moved deeper into the cave, we quickly found the cache as bats were trying to fly and dropping to the ground. Several of the bats appeared to be dead and most had a white fuzz on their face and wings. Not knowing if there was a connection between the erratic behaviors we were seeing or if this growth on their face and wings was contagious, and not wishing to disturb the bats further, we quickly exited the cave as several bats flew erratically around us.


We had walked into an outbreak of what came to be called white nose syndrome (WNS)! First documented in New Hampshire in 2009, it has killed 90% of three different species (little brown bat, northern long-eared bat, and the tricolored bat) over a ten-year period. Scientists believe the syndrome was first introduced to North America from contact with bats in Europe and China. European and Chinese bats have possibly adapted to the spread of the disease because transmission rates are much lower than in North America. WNS does not seem to be contagious in humans, but clearly can be spread by humans who come into contact with bats. Scientists and spelunkers who are likely to be in contact with bats, especially in winter, can protect exposed skin by applying a mixture of polyethylene glycol, an antifungal solution, and spraying their gear and clothing as well. This especially important when dealing with or treating bats in their winter hibernaculum. Keep in mind that while chances are slim that you can catch the fungus that causes WNS, being around bats does expose you to the possibility of being exposed to rabies, since many species may carry this human as well as animal disease.


Bats that have WNS are kept awake and move around the winter roost, thus waking others and spreading the fungus throughout the colony. This reduces their fat stores that they have built up to get them through the winter and ultimately causes starvation. Bats are vital to a healthy natural world. Their appetite for insect pests is very significant, and they are also pollinators who fertilize night-opening flowers and most varieties of fruit.

Federal, state, and local conservation organizations are responding to the plight of bats in a number of ways. Four of the five bat species that hibernate in NH have been placed on the State Endangered List, enhancing the protections available to them. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified the northern long-eared bat in January 2022 from a Federal Threatened Species to the Endangered Species List. Little brown bat colony numbers are increasing but recovery chances are uncertain.


Organizations like the Southeast Land Trust (SELT) in New Hampshire have developed forest management strategies that keep them constantly vigilant to threats to wildlife. Disdaining the spooky old houses and overpasses my students once searched, several bat species are roosting in loose tree bark like shag bark hickory. Forest tree management that favors mature trees and those with cavities make good roosts. Bats can better survive the winter if they can thrive in the summer. Landowners need to follow guidance from the USFWS to respond to the endangered listing of bats. If you live in an old house with an attic or barn, don’t evict bats in the winter but put up a flat bat house on your siding in the summer.


Is there any hope? Due to the efforts of state agencies like NH Fish and Game and volunteer bat swabbers, WNS is getting tracked and bat populations counted yearly. Is there evidence of a bat bounce back? Yes, but a climb back up to historic populations will be very, very steep.



Southeast Land Trust Journal, Fall 2023

White Nose Syndrome

White Nose Syndrome in Bats, Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

What is White nose Syndrome?

United States Geological Survey,



John Halloran

John is the Director of Science for GOMI and a member of the GOMI Guide Team. John’s interests focus on the oceanohn is the Director of Science for GOMI and a member of the GOMI Guide Team. John’s interests focus on the ocean environment where he pursues educational adventure travel, research, and recreation by sail, paddle, and scuba. John is the founder and director of Adventure Learning, Newburyport, MA, which has been involved with educational outreach in area schools and recreational programs for teens and adults since 1980. A long-time educator, John was at the forefront of the experiential education movement in the U.S. for 36 years, he taught natural science in the Newburyport Public Schools. John has special interest and expertise in teacher training and standards for learning in math and science. His role has included direct teaching, teacher training, program development, grant writing, and developing partnerships with professionals in the field.

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