UNO professor studies local bats: An important part of the ecosystem fighting disease

Professor Jeremy White examines an Eastern Red Bat. Photo by Megan Pfingsten/The Gateway
Professor Jeremy White examines an Eastern Red Bat. Photo by Megan Pfingsten/The Gateway

Charlotte Reilly

What has four wings, can fly and is a traditional symbol of Halloween? Bats.

“They’re not really as creepy as you think,” Madelene Shehan, an undergraduate student at UNO said.

Shehan continued, “Bats are worth billions of dollars to the agricultural industry. Without them, we’d be in real trouble because we’d need more pesticides.”

Yet bats are dying off by the millions.

This is due to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease researchers think is endemic to Europe and Asia. It was found in North America 10 years ago, and has been spreading rapidly ever since.

Jeremy White, a UNO biology professor, started monitoring the disease in 2014. In 2015, he found infected bats in Nebraska. White first became interested in bats in 2000, when he was a graduate student at UNO. His advisor, a bat biologist, took him to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico to help with a project.

“I was sort of hooked from there. It was a world I’d never been exposed to before. I’d never seen a bat. I didn’t know much about them, and all of the sudden I was catching hundreds of bats at the entrance of the caverns,” said White. Today, White’s research is mostly local.

The bats in Nebraska eat insects, so as the weather gets colder they either have to hibernate or migrate. Migratory bats have been found carrying the fungus, but the disease isn’t affecting them as drastically as hibernating bats. When hibernating bats have high levels of the fungus, they arose more often during hibernation. They use the energy that they stored, and they starve because there are no insects to eat.

The Nebraskan bats have not died from the disease yet.

“Our bats here look healthy; we don’t see any of the white fungal growth on them,” White said. “But, when we take a swab of their nose, and send it off to test for DNA of the fungus, they find it. So they’re carrying the fungus, but it’s not at high enough concentrations for them to die from it.”

The bats can carry the fungus for two or three years before the levels are high enough to kill them. Learning more about the bats, and getting closer to finding a cure for the disease is crucial. However, studying the bats in not easy.

“They are hard to study. They fly around at night. They are difficult to catch, and they are difficult to see,” White said. One of the main problems White has encountered while studying bats in Nebraska is there aren’t any natural caves. There are mines. He has access to some, but not all.

He is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to try and get access to more mines. Through his studies, he has learned bats are really important predators of night-flying insects.

Bats eat insects and help keep crops healthy. In other parts of the world, they eat fruit and act as seed dispersers. Nectar-feeding bats act as pollinators.

“I always tell my students if you like tequila, it’s made from agave. It’s a bat pollinated plant. So,
without bats, we might not have it,” White said.

White thinks the most important aspect of bat conservation is protecting biodiversity.

“Bats provide services that we don’t appreciate that much, but it’s a really important part of the whole system,” White said. “When you’ve lost enough biodiversity, the system will crash and
we lose all of the services.”