Seasonal bat survey being conducted in southeast Alaska

PETERSBURG, Alaska (AP) – A group of volunteers from five southeast Alaska communities is working to document bats as part of a program aimed at combating a deadly virus caused by the animals.

Volunteers from Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Sitka and Wrangell are participating in this year’s program, which is coordinated through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Over the last three years, the program has helped gather data to prevent White Noise Syndrome. The fungal disease has killed off more than 7 million bats in the Lower 48 since it was discovered a decade ago.

The volunteers will be monitoring bat activity and recording bat calls while they conduct the driving surveys.

“When a bat comes it’s really clear what it is,” said Sunny Rice, one of the volunteers. “So then you’ve heard it and you keep driving around and you’re sort of guessing, if you’re familiar with where you are, ‘Oh, I totally think there’s going to be bats here or maybe there’s going to be bats at this place where I go berry picking,’ so it’s like a treasure hunt kind of.”

Southeast Alaska has five main bat species that mostly roost in trees during the summer and hibernate through the winter. The region’s most common species is the Little Brown Bat.

From 2014 to 2016, volunteers also spotted California myotis, Keen’s myotis and silver-haired bats, which are most common in Sitka. Just one hoary bat was found in the entire region and was spotted in Haines last year.

Scientists are using the information on Alaska’s bat populations to learn more about White Noise Syndrome, which causes bats to wake early from hibernation and then starve from lack of food. The disease is concerning for scientists because bats in the region do not multiply quickly. The Little Brown Bat can live for over 30 years but the females only have one pup a year.

“And so we’re racing against the clock,” said Tory Rhoads, a scientist with the state, “to try and establish any information we can about bat populations in the event that White Nose Syndrome comes to Alaska.”

Fish and Game has also extended its efforts beyond the region by partnering with British Columbia to educate the public about how bats can accidentally be moved from one location to another. Bats can end up on camping gear, in Christmas trees or on boats without people noticing as they travel.

“And it isn’t too far of a stretch to say that if White Noise comes to Alaska it could very, very likely be by way of a stowaway bat on a ship somewhere,” Rhoads said.


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