Landmark research continues at Tippy Dam on White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease affecting American bats. About 27,000 bats live in the dam including some threatened and endangered species. Tippy Dam is situated on the Manistee River and a source of hydroelectric energy in Manistee County since 1918. A bat count was done this winter, which provided an update on the status of kinds, including the Northern Long-eared and Indiana bats, both on the federal endangered species list.

Dr. Allen Kurta, Eastern Michigan University biology professor and bat expert, and his team have been doing a study to determine why bats at Tippy Dam, the second largest hydro we own, have been resistant to the infectious, deadly disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS).

“The good news is that there was no decrease, and no obvious signs of rampant infection with white-nose syndrome,” Kurta said. “The total includes seven tricolored bats and one Indiana bat, although, once again, I could not find a Northern Long-eared bat.”

The last time Northern Long-eared bats were found at Tippy was 2015, Kurta said.

“They are, in general, more susceptible to the disease, which is why they are endangered, and unfortunately, they apparently have died out at Tippy,” he said.

A Game Changer

“It’s mind-boggling what is occurring with bats at Tippy Dam – it’s definitely a game changer,” said Kurta. “It’s the only place with a major bat population in the United States that hasn’t completely crashed. It’s a place that we have and will continue to learn from as we find ways to halt the extinction of all American bats.”

A major concern in the bat community is the dwindling population of the Northern Long-eared and Indiana bats. In the past 20 years, they were able to calculate that 3 percent of the population were Northern Long Eared bats within the Tippy Dam population and about 20 individual ones were Indiana bats.

“The Northern Long-eared has seemed to disappear in other spots with big bat populations,” Kurta said. “And the Indiana bat population is drastically dwindling as well. This research gives us hope that we can slow down the extinction of these bats.”

Haley Gmutza, who was part of Kurta’s bat research team and is now a PhD student at Ohio State University, set up two thermal cameras in two separate areas at Tippy Dam to monitor the bats – a major majority being Little Brown bats – which soon may join the endangered species list.

According to initial research the reasons they are surviving at Tippy, where White Nose fungus was first found in the dam in 2014, may be due to something genetically different about the bats that allows their immune system to fight off WNS. Another reason may be related to unique attributes of the Tippy Dam hibernaculum.

“It could be a combination of the two,” said Gmutza, who wrote her thesis about the subject while a student at Eastern Michigan University. “Bats at other large sites wake up in the winter through the 24-hour day, but the light entering Tippy appears to be keeping them on a nocturnal schedule, waking them up primarily at night.”

A Key Role

Since many people in America fear bats, Kurta said it’s difficult to get sympathy for the endangered creatures. But since they eat only insects, they play a key role in the ecological system.

“If there are no more bats, the farmers would need to use a lot more pesticides to prevent insects from ruining their crops,” said Kurta. “And that means more money that the farmers will pass on to us. The cost of food could skyrocket. That’s why we need to do whatever we can to prevent all types of bats from becoming extinct. It’s one of those things where they will be sorely missed when they are gone.”

Kurta has been monitoring Tippy bats for more than 25 years and detected WNS in the Tippy spillway walls. After carefully examining hundreds of bats in 2019, he found some with the disease, but they didn’t suffer the consequences as some did in other areas.

Matt Carmer, Natural Resources and Renewables Lead at Consumers Energy, said it was paramount for us to work with Dr. Kurta’s team to conduct a study on the bats at Tippy Dam.

“This study could directly lead to a solution for how scientists can save these bats from the brink of extinction,” Carmer said.  “We value all wildlife and the impact they have on our ecological system, and we will continue to take the necessary steps to protect these bats and other animals from harm that comes in many forms, including WNS.”

For Gmutza, since the first day of research and hundreds of hours of studying them later, she has gained a newfound appreciation of bats and their role in nature.

Hope at Tippy

“My first time at Tippy was surreal,” she said. “When I looked up to see all the bats in there it was an unbelievable sight. It really showed me there was hope.”

At Ohio State University, she is now studying the behavior of Vampire Bats, which don’t reside in the United States and strictly live off the blood of other animals, mainly cattle.

“I am invested and will continue to be in the bat research at Tippy Dam,” she said. “Tippy is a special place that could be the key to unlocking ways to save all bats.”

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