GLASGOW — Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series about college students working during the summer at Mammoth Cave National Park.
College interns are helping scientists this summer at Mammoth Cave National Park learn more about white-nose syndrome and its effect on bat populations.
Emily Dowell and Shelby Fulton are two such interns. Among their responsibilities is counting bats.
“We do emergence counts to monitor the population numbers that we are finding in the different caves,” said Dowell, a Murray State University graduate from Hart County who majored in biology.
She, along with Fulton and other college interns, count the bats in 10-minute increments in the evenings as they exit the caves.
“It’s pretty simple. They usually come out one at a time or two at a time,” said Fulton, an environmental science major. “I think the most I’ve ever gotten was 60 in a 10-minute increment. We use little clickers so you don’t have to keep track in your head. You can just click every time you see them.”
Counting bat populations is an important part of the scientists’ research.
“With things like white-nose (syndrome) and other threats to bats, we want to make sure we understand what’s happening with our bat populations,” said Ricky Toomey, director of the Mammoth Cave International Center for Science and Learning. “And so Emily and Shelby have been helping us do research on the bats, monitoring the populations, doing exit counts.
“They’ve also been doing some acoustic monitoring of bats, both in driving transects and starting on some stationary transects.”
White-nose syndrome is a deadly disease for bats that is caused by a fungus. It was first detected at Mammoth Cave in January 2013 when a northern long-eared bat was found to be showing symptoms. The bat was in Long Cave, the national park’s largest bat hibernaculum that houses endangered Indiana bats and gray bats, along with other non-threatened species. Long Cave is not connected to Mammoth Cave, but is on the national park’s property and has not been open to the public for more than 80 years, according to a previous Daily Times report.
“The importance is understanding, with all the threats to bats and with bats dying of white-nose syndrome, and keeping an eye on our bat population and seeing how badly we are affected by white-nose syndrome,” Toomey said. “The bats are dying in the winter, but that also means they are not here in the summer. We are studying both their winter populations and Emily and Shelby are helping us with their summer populations.”
There are 13 species of bats within Mammoth Cave. White-nose affects about six of them, Toomey said.
Those species are: the Little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat, the Indiana bat, the big brown bat, the eastern small-footed bat, the tricolor bat and the gray bat.
“The gray bat – we know it gets the disease, but we haven’t seen strong evidence that it kills large numbers of them,” he said. “It will probably be next year when we really find out if gray bats have a mortality from it.”
So far, scientists at Mammoth Cave have not seen catastrophic changes in the numbers of bats seen in caves.
“Our summer populations don’t seem to be showing major fall from death in the winter,” Toomey said.
One of the more interesting things Fulton has discovered during her internship has been a maternity colony of bats.
“We knew there was a population of bats at an abandoned cistern off Flint Ridge Road. Now it looks like it’s a maternity colony,” she said. “That’s not really confirmed, but it’s looking that way. So that’s pretty cool.”
Dowell said she has enjoying working with the “cool technology.”
“One thing we get to use is an infrared monitor. So in caves that are expelling a lot of cold air, it’s easy to see the warm bats coming out of the cold air,” she said. “I think that’s been the most interesting thing for me to see so far.”
This marks the third year at Mammoth Cave for college interns to assist scientists with research concerning bats and white-nose syndrome, Toomey said.