NC Taps Indiana State Bat Researchers to Study Gray Bats

NC Taps Indiana State Bat Researchers to Study Gray Bats

Indiana State University researchers examine a bat in Tennessee in 2014.

The Center for Bat Research, Outreach and Conservation at Indiana State University has been awarded a $900,000 grant from the NC Department of Transportation for a three-year study into the distribution, preferred habitats and migration habits of the federally endangered gray bats.

The gray bat lives mostly in Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri. Last year, however, hundreds of gray bats were found to be living in state transportation structures in North Carolina.

Because NCDOT routinely conducts maintenance, cleans and upgrades bridges, state officials need a better understanding of where the bats are located and when they are there.

“Bats are faithful to their structures and their routes to get to these structures,” said Joy O’Keefe, associate professor of biology and director of the Bat Center. “They want us to determine where the bats are, and that may not just be in Asheville — these bats can fly great distances.”

Bats will be tagged with a temporary transmitter that O’Keefe’s team can hear through receivers and antenna towers around Asheville, she said. “We’ll also use acoustic detectors to find bat hotspots around Asheville, and we’ll be searching other bridges to find bats, coordinating with the state and Fish and Wildlife Service. Airplanes will also be used to track the bats’ migration.”

The beeper on each bat will emit a distinctive code. “Adult females are of particular interest,” O’Keefe said.

Indiana State researchers will also use ground crews to catch and trap bats three times a year, in early spring, in summer after the young gray bats can fly and then again in fall. In this manner, scientists can determine where the gray bats are foraging for insects, which would help improve conservation efforts, O’Keefe said. She said her team would be able to take guano samples and may determine exactly what the bats have ingested.

“With our research, hopefully, the North Carolina Department of Transportation would be able to find things to avoid,” O’Keefe said. “For instance, they might schedule construction on bridges after the bats have migrated for the winter. Or the information they get from us could prompt them to modify road improvement projects to better protect the bats’ habitat.”

Bats gobble as much as their weight in bugs every night, protecting humans’ comfort, health and economy. Human encroachment on these flying mammals’ habitats and white-nose syndrome — a deadly disease that is thought to spread from cave to cave, attacking bats as they hibernate — have decimated many bat species, including the gray bat.

“It’s more important than ever to protect this bat,” O’Keefe said.

The NCDOT sought out State researchers after a biologist stumbled across a bat roosting under a bridge in Asheville in 2016. The biologist had contacted a mammalogist, who saw one of the bats and said, “This looks like a gray bat,” said O’Keefe. “She pulled the bat out from a bridge crevice, and it was a gray bat.”

A few weeks later, those state biologists “caught a bunch of gray bats” at the same bridge.

Joe Weber, who earned in 2015 a master’s degree in biology from Indiana State University, studies Virginia big-eared bat in North Carolina in 2014.

One of the biologists who helped to find the gray bats is State alumnus Joey Weber, ’15, who earned a master’s degree in biology. His thesis project was identifying migration routes for the Virginia big-eared bat and was also funded by NCDOT.

When Weber’s project was complete, he was able to tell NCDOT exactly where these bats cross roadways, O’Keefe said. Knowing where the bats are, where they migrate to and what route they take is critical information needed by the NCDOT because might be able to alter proposed construction projects to avoid the bats and help preserve the animal’s habitat.

O’Keefe would also like to involve the community of Asheville in the gray bat project. “I would like to see an outreach campaign, where local residents can become engaged in the project. I would like to see the Asheville citizens take ownership of the bats. I think it would be great if the people in Asheville knew about their bats.”

She referred to a success story involving the people of Austin, Texas, and the Mexican free-tailed bat. A colony of the bats made their summer home under the Congress Avenue Bridge, located about 10 blocks south of the Texas State Capitol. These bats make up the largest urban colony of bats in North America, with an estimated 1.5 million bats devouring 10,000-30,000 pounds of insects every night.

The town works to protect the bats, and the bridge area each night has become a tourist attraction as the bats emerge from their roost to find food. O’Keefe said she hopes a similar involvement might occur in Asheville, with its residents embracing its unique population of endangered gray bats.


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