EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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AARON SCOTT, HOST:
Hey, nature nerds. Break out your hiking shoes because we are kicking off a series of stories visiting some of the country's most stunning national parks and other protected lands. Think about it like a sonic summer road-trip we're all going to take together to learn about some of the science happening in places like Big Bend in Texas, Glacier Peak in Washington, going to go to Hawaii - so many places to go to. And to start things off, we're heading to Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah is part of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountain Range. The highest peak in the park is just over 4,000 feet, so much smaller than its Rocky Mountain or Sierra Mountain cousins. But it is so full of gorgeous hikes and walks, waterfalls, animals, just beauty - breathtaking beauty. But Jesse De La Cruz - he doesn't go there looking for the stunning vistas. His research takes place at night.
JESSE DE LA CRUZ: You really do enjoy a different environment that most people don't really appreciate or don't just simply get to interact with very commonly.
SCOTT: Jesse's searching for a famous denizen of the dark.
Are you out there with, like, a butterfly net, jumping around chasing bats? Or is this spreading out like a giant net across an opening and letting the bats fly into it?
DE LA CRUZ: Yeah. Yeah. So the latter is exactly right. So we have these very fine mesh nets that can be spread between two poles. And if you can imagine, we lift them, flagpole style, and we really look for corridors, be they roads or small trails or even streams over open water, things that bats, you know, readily travel along or forage across or drink from.
SCOTT: Jesse is a researcher at Virginia Tech, working on a series of bat studies in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Once they net the bats, they take measurements and put small identification bands on them to keep track of them. The bats - they take this experience in different ways.
DE LA CRUZ: You may not believe this - and maybe I'm off - you know, but bats really kind of have their own personality, to a degree. Some will be very vigorous in hand and try to escape. And others will just relax. And to try to decrease stress, we'll hold them in either, like, say, a paper bag, or some folks I've even seen use toilet paper rolls.
SCOTT: He and his team are studying the impact of white-nose syndrome. It's a fungus that started killing off millions of bats in the U.S. starting around 2006.
DE LA CRUZ: It causes arousal during hibernation period. The bats then use up fat reserves and other resources. They'll often exit the cave during the wintertime. Of course, there's nothing for them to eat or drink. And so they often die that way. And at its peak, it was killing, you know, hundreds of thousands of bats annually.
SCOTT: White-nose syndrome has hit the threatened northern, long-eared bats hard because they hibernate all packed together in big colonies, in caves. Starting in 2017, when Jesse and his fellow researchers looked for the bats in the Shenandoah Mountains in the summer, they saw colony failure after colony failure.
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SCOTT: These bats do still show up in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp.
DE LA CRUZ: You know, there are glimmers of hope here. Even in Virginia, we have found the bat overwintering in coastal areas. So it seems to be that populations may have kind of a nonhibernating refugia - right? - refugia. So effectively, they might then be able to behaviorally avoid white-nose syndrome year-round in places like Dismal Swamp.
SCOTT: And a few other bat species in both places seem to be adapting to the deadly fungus. So today on the show, a tale of two parks that points to how some bats may be surviving white-nose syndrome. I'm Aaron Scott. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science bat cast from NPR.
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SCOTT: So, Jesse, we're starting out in Shenandoah National Park. Would you tell us a little bit more about how white-nose syndrome has affected the northern long-eared bats there?
DE LA CRUZ: Yeah. Yeah. So the northern long-eared bat at Shenandoah - and like a lot of other regions in the summertimes (ph), it would roost in things like sassafras, red maples, black locust. And as of 2016, we would find them there. But in recent years, due to white-nose syndrome, they would actually fail to form maternity colonies - either they would lose their pup because they were unhealthy, or they would abandon the pup because the adult bat itself was unhealthy. So we've been unable to document them since 2016.
SCOTT: But the beauty of Shenandoah isn't lost on all the bats. Some find their perfect home in the rocks outside the caves.
DE LA CRUZ: What is unique about Shenandoah is that it has these large talus features.
SCOTT: You know, the rocks that pile up at the bottom of a slope, like at the base of a cliff or a mountain. And these rocky jumbles are particularly appealing for the small-footed bat.
DE LA CRUZ: Yeah. So the small-footed bat is unique. They're difficult to find during wintertime, when bats would normally be hibernating. They seem to either use different resources, maybe not the cave. Or they hibernate in cracks in the cave. Or more likely, they spend most of the year in these talus rock formations, where other bats just simply don't reside in any great numbers.
SCOTT: And so that's like hibernating almost in just little crevices and under rocks in a way, right?
DE LA CRUZ: Right, right. And so that then allows them to behaviorally avoid white-nose, potentially. And so, in effect, after white-nose syndrome, we saw all these other species, which would include the northern long-eared bat, the little brown bat, Indiana bat. We saw their populations decline precipitously. The small-footed bat, however, basically, has remained stable. And in - maybe in some instances, even gone up slightly - their populations. So we've maintained some of our bat biodiversity, despite having this horrible disease sweep across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and kill, you know, approximately 7 million bats over the past decade or so.
SCOTT: So, Jesse, you said that some of these bats are doing better in more coastal areas. And we'd love to talk about one that while not a national park, is a national wildlife refuge - the Great Dismal Swamp.
DE LA CRUZ: Well, the Great Dismal Swamp really did earn its name, right?
DE LA CRUZ: George Washington tried to drain it for a reason (laughter). But what he didn't drain is actually really beautiful. Yeah, it is just a very large, complex of woody wetland and herbaceous wetland that encompasses just an enormous amount - hundreds of thousands of acres - of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. I've seen coyotes, bear, bobcat, more cottonmouth snakes than you can shake a stick at.
DE LA CRUZ: And it does seem to still contain northern long-eared bats.
SCOTT: What is the most important thing to know about why the northern long-eared bat populations are steady in this habitat?
DE LA CRUZ: Well, that's a really interesting question because we think that it's because of behavioral avoidance of white-nose syndrome. It may be staying there year-round, or - which I think is potentially even more intriguing - is that it is migrating to the Great Dismal Swamp, potentially from the greater D.C. area. So we know of reproductive colonies of northern long-eared bats at Rock Creek Park in D.C., but we have no idea where they go.
SCOTT: So you're saying it could be a bat bedroom community?
DE LA CRUZ: A bat - yeah - well, in effect, it is the Florida to the retirees.
DE LA CRUZ: So, yeah, in the wintertime, we - they basically turned in the snowbirds, and they overwinter vacation at Dismal Swamp - that would be the hope.
SCOTT: And so in a place like Dismal Swamp, are they just in the trees? Or are there caves? Or where are they hibernating?
DE LA CRUZ: Yeah, there are no caves. There are no caves or mines that we know of in this region. But what has been documented is that they use large, cavity-bearing trees, right? So these large, hollow trees basically serve as buffers for the cold temperatures that the bats experience. The swamps are still productive in the wintertime. They can wake up. They can get a drink. They can forage a bit and then go right back into torpor, effectively replacing the cave systems that we have in western Virginia.
SCOTT: And, I mean, bats are not epidemiologists, so it's not like they're doing this from a, you know, cognitive level of, I need to avoid this fungus. Is it just a matter of there's, like, a couple of bats who are already doing this, and they're just the ones who are prospering? Or is it like, that they actually somehow know to not roost in large colonies?
DE LA CRUZ: Right. Yeah. So bat biologists have really been throwing out both hypotheses. And I guess the answer is undetermined yet. So we've been taking genetics from these coastal populations of bats and comparing them to inland populations to say, has white-nose syndrome really forced them apart? And as of right now, it doesn't look to be. So really, then that means that these bats were always interacting from coastal habitats inland. It just so happens that their inland counterparts now have really just died off because of white-nose syndrome. So it's kind of a quirky behavior that has allowed them to survive. And we see kind of a selection for type behaviors in little brown bats. But that has occurred in caves because they are actually using a part of the cave that's so cold that it inhibits growth of the fungus on the skin.
SCOTT: And so we're seeing natural selection in action.
DE LA CRUZ: Yeah, potentially. I mean, these are works that are still in process.
SCOTT: I got to ask, why should people care about bats disappearing and white-nose syndrome? I mean, why are they important to our ecosystems?
DE LA CRUZ: You know, I anticipated this question. And people typically give the answer that they help relieve pests. And that's true. They are probably a billion-dollar additive to pest reduction for agriculture.
SCOTT: Which is to say, eating all sorts of insects that would otherwise eat crops or, in the case of mosquitoes, eat us while we're on camping trips.
DE LA CRUZ: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that also - I would include in that, to a degree, forestry-related products, right? So they would prey upon moths and things that would defoliate high-value forest but also forests that people enjoy recreating in, right? So those values are all to our people. But in a greater sense, that biodiversity, in and of itself, has great value. We've, in effect, lost what would be the equivalent of the robin in many of these species. You wake up every day, and your listeners see the American robin on their lawn or on a telephone pole or what have you. And many of these species were just as abundant and now are virtually gone from the landscape. And that, in and of itself, is a real tragedy to me.
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SCOTT: Jesse, I'd love to ask, what gives you hope? I mean, when you're out there in the middle of the night, you've got your nets, and you are searching for the bats and just not finding as many as you did in previous years. What keeps you going?
DE LA CRUZ: One, it's important, I think, to document what's happening. But two, we look for little victories or - and you never really give up hope on recovery, right? That's the job of a conservationist. And a site that we were recently at, we had a 13-year-old band return. That means it's at least 13 years old and continues to survive on the post-white-nose landscape. That, to me, gives me a little bit of hope that we have a chance to bring some of these guys back from the brink.
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SCOTT: As we tour the national parks, we want to hear where in the world you are, too, especially if you're on a road trip or you're visiting a park yourself. So to be featured in an upcoming episode, record yourself saying your name, your location and the line, you're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. And then send the recording by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can send it by echolocation. We might get it. This episode was produced by our senior supervising editor, Gisele Grayson, Chloee Weiner and Rebecca Ramirez. Rebecca also edited the piece. Rachel Carlson checked the facts. And Patrick Murray was our audio engineer. Beth Donovan is our senior director, and Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Aaron Scott. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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