NDSU researchers trying to track bats hibernating in region

As a fungal disease that has wiped out millions of bats in the United States moves closer to North Dakota and South Dakota, a college researcher from Fargo is asking residents and business owners if they have any uninvited guests.

North Dakota State University biological sciences professor Erin Gillam, known to some as the "Bat Lady," is heading a research project that focuses on the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that strikes bats when they are hibernating and that has wiped out bat colonies in some areas of the country. It was first discovered in upstate New York in 2006 and has spread west, reaching as far as eastern Minnesota.

"Up until a couple of years ago, we didn't even know there were hibernating bats in the state," Gillam said. "There were these predictive models that estimated how the disease would move, and North Dakota was absent from those models."

Gillam first began researching bats in 2009, when the North Dakota Game and Fish Department realized there was little information on the mammals and funded the first statewide survey. Gillam's team has discovered 11 species.

Until now, the investigation has focused on natural habitats in western North Dakota, like caves, crevices and trees. Now, Gillam and her students want to find out how many of them are spending winters in homes and buildings in eastern North Dakota and whether the conditions are right for white-nose syndrome to survive.

I basically can't do it without the public's help

"The idea is we want to know if we have bats overwintering in the eastern part of the state," said J.J. Nelson, a graduate student researcher. "Because if we don't and they are migrating away, it will be that much harder for white-nose syndrome to make that jump from Minnesota and into western North Dakota."

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Scientists believe the disease arrived from Europe, where bats are more resilient to it, and was then transported on the shoes of cavers. The fungus penetrates the tissue of bats' noses, mouths and wings, compromising their ability to stay hydrated and to maintain their body temperature.

Gillam says many of the bats that spend the summers in this area migrate out to Minnesota and South Dakota in the winter, but she wants to study the ones that stay. She will record sounds and gauge other factors like temperature and humidity. She won't be removing the bats.

"I basically can't do it without the public's help," Gillam said. "I lack the time and the resources to drive around North Dakota and look for places myself."

It is, Gillam and Nelson say, a labor of love. Gillam drives a gray pickup truck with a license plate that reads "I love bats." Nelson said he fell in love with bats during his first summer of research in western North Dakota.

"You would be surprised how they kind of grow on you," Nelson said. "All the myths and preconceived notions people have about them, as you work with them you start to realize that most of them aren't true or they're misunderstood."

He added, "I would even go as far as to say they are pretty cute."