Erickson Smith ’15 wanted to be a marine biologist. Beginning in the middle of high school, when he left the Boston area to become a student at Lester B. Pearson United World College in Vancouver, Canada, and continuing through his initial years at College of the Atlantic, his eye was on the ocean. Then he began to feel something was missing: he couldn’t name the local trees. “It was a wakeup call to everything on land that is beautiful and interesting and worth knowing about,” he says.

Seeking a land-bound internship, his advisor, COA faculty member in biology John Anderson, connected him to Bruce Connery, Acadia National Park biologist. Bruce was looking for an intern to take over a bat survey project that had been initiated by COA’s Marissa Altmann ’13. In the summer of 2013, Erickson volunteere­­­d to visit locations where bats were known to roost during the day. After twenty surveys over a number of months he found … very few bats. On the best night, he counted eight emerging from the building known as the Stone Barn, down the road from COA’s Peggy Rockefeller Farms. In the late 1990s, as many as ninety bats had been seen at the same site. By 2011, white-nose syndrome had arrived on Mount Desert Island.

Death by itching
In 2006, cavers visiting the hibernating caves of upstate New York found hundreds of bats lying dead on the floor with a distinguishing mark of white fuzz on their noses. The next winter, state officials confirmed the bats had contracted the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. The hypothesis is that one or more cavers returned from Europe—where the disease is thought to have originated—and entered caves in New York without cleaning their equipment, thereby introducing this European species of fungus. While European bats seem to have adapted to it, the newly exposed North American bats had not. The fungus irritates the bat’s skin, waking them from their deep sleep. As Bruce explains, “each time a bat wakes up, it uses some of its very limited energy reserves, which can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, and bats starving or leaving the hibernaculum to die from exposure.”

White-nose syndrome might have perished in that cave along with the bats if some hadn’t survived. Instead, the surviving bats swiftly spread the fungus through contact, bringing it to Maine by 2010. In the winter of 2011, hikers and cross-country skiers were reporting dead bats on Acadia’s carriage roads. “Bats like to cuddle,” says Erickson, so the disease gets shared among hibernating bats, including northern long-eared and little brown bats. Another species, eastern small-footed bats, also hibernate but don’t tend to go as deeply into caves; they’ve been less impacted. Also less impacted are migratory or tree bats like silverhaired, red, and hoary bats. But Acadia’s northern long-eared and little brown bats have declined by more than 90 percent.

A sad yet helpful turning point came on April 2, 2015 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern long-eared bat as threatened nationally. The loss impacts us all—bats consume insects, especially mosquitoes and various agricultural and forestry pests. A recent economic study estimated the agricultural value of bats at more than $3.7 billion per year.

The “threatened” designation immediately brought any modification of Acadia structures and habitats under review. It also brought funding. At graduation, Erickson was offered a seasonal paid position as a biological science technician working with Bruce, Bik Wheeler ’09, MPhil ’17, and several other scientists on bats and several other scientists on bats and other projects. The park also hired the Portland-based Biodiversity Research Institute, or BRI, to assist with monitoring. Using passive ultrasonic acoustic receivers, crews monitor and record bat calls—mostly pitched too high for humans to hear—and raise nets near bat habitats to gently capture the small mammals, band them for identification, check them for disease, and attach transmitters for tracking on a select few, since the gear is limited.

The most sensitive period for bats is pupping season, from June 1 to July 31. A female bat has only one pup a season. But protecting bats in this critical period has impacted other park plans. Bruce explains, “For many years the park had sought funding to clear foliage so as to open vistas that were part of the original park road system.” The funding finally was awarded in 2015, only to conflict with the guidelines protecting the northern long-eared bat. Notes Erickson, “Among the most interesting human ecological quandaries in working for the park is trying to manage all these different resources and values for the visitor, but also for the wildlife, for nature, for historical preservation purposes. When those come into conflict, how do you resolve them?” In this case the cutting was able to be delayed until after the pupping season.

Bat stalking
At dusk on a Tuesday evening in June, I join Erickson and scientist Corinne Michaud on a drive up to the Jordan Pond Gatehouse. We are tracking an eastern small-footed bat that had been netted just north of Jordan Pond earlier in the season. She was pregnant and showed no signs of white-nose fungus. One of the park’s ten tiny antennae had been placed on her to monitor her activities as she comes to term, though most of the antennae are reserved for northern long-eared bats. After she was released, she was found roosting in the Jordan Pond Gatehouse. We check in with two BRI staff members setting up to watch her leave the gatehouse. We then drive along the carriage road, crossing the bridge at Jordan Pond, and climb along the western edge of the pond, where we park. From the back seat, we grab an ultrasonic receiver and portable antenna.

The assumption is she will fly northwest over the pond to feed. We wait above the pond as mosquitoes and no-see-ums—bat food—chomp on us. Corinne holds the receiver high. If the bat is present, we’ll hear a beep. “Will we see her?” I ask. “She is very small,” replies Erickson. “We might see her, or a silhouette over the water if the light is right; we may only hear her.” We wait. Hunger is the main driver bringing a bat out, but that is balanced against concerns over predators. After two nights of rain, we are hopeful hunger will win.

The BRI folks report she has left the roost flying southwest—the opposite of what had been expected. We head to the Stanley Brook parking area, hooking the receiver to the car antenna. It is multidirectional; we will pick up the bat if she is nearby. Sure enough, as we approach the bridge we hear a beep. Excited, we hop out with the portable receiver, heading south toward the beeps. They stop. We turn north toward the pond. The beeps pick up. She seems to be flying above us. The direction changes again, off she goes toward where we had originally been waiting. She had gone northwest to feed. We decide we have enough information; it is time to help with netting.

Waiting for a bat
The rest of the BRI team is above Hadlock Pond, stringing nets across the carriage road and an adjacent stream. We drive until we see a barricade, park, and approach the first of three, thirty-foot tall nets placed near natural overhangs that should cause the bats to swoop down, hopefully into one of the nets. We come to a circle of camp chairs around a worktable and join the six BRI researchers. Soft conversation ensues for twelve minutes, then everyone stands, snaps on headlamps, and leaves to check for bats. Erickson and I visit the first net. Nothing. We return to the circle. No bats.

We converse for twelve more minutes. This time, Erickson and I head north with our headlamps, checking the net over the stream and one more, further up. No bats. We return. Silence. More random conversation. More checking. Around midnight, Erickson announces that he is due at work at 7:30 a.m., I leave with him while the BRI team spends a few more hours waiting for bats.

In the summer of 2016 there were three sessions of nightly net surveys, each for two to three weeks. If a bat is netted, it is identified by species and checked for disease, gender, age, pregnancy, and lactation. The biologists are specifically looking for how the disease affects bats as they mature.

Hope arising from concern
A second critical period for bats is hibernation, though there are still questions about where MDI bats hibernate. One potential hibernaculum was discovered by chance. Bruce got word the park wanted to work on the motor road bridge over Duck Brook, which is hollow. After checking the blueprints and being trained to enter confined spaces, Bruce and two others explored the bridge. They found bat guano, which has been sent for testing. Monitoring the site, Erikson and the others saw eighteen bats foraging one Thursday in May, “the most I’ve ever seen!” exclaimed Erickson. Work on the bridge has been suspended for now.

Some bats are surviving the syndrome. One, tagged in 2013, was recently recaptured, indicating it is not just the young that are surviving. Looking out five years, Bruce is hopeful surveys will “confirm more juveniles that are healthy,” and that hibernating bats, “will have adapted or become resistant, or at least have a greater immunity to white-nose syndrome.”

It wasn’t that long ago that island residents saw dozens of bats swirling at dusk. The summer’s research revealed that of the 115 bats netted, as many as 65 percent showed no signs of the fungus, which implies that some portion of Acadia’s bats are still finding hibernacula that have not been exposed to the fungus. Through continued protection, it is possible that bats may once again be able to successfully reproduce, feast on mosquitoes, and cuddle as they roost and hibernate.