By Jonathan Veit
Photography by Ashley Jones
Researchers at Clemson are on the forefront of a national effort to understand why bats across North America are dying in tragic numbers and to divine how this massive die-off is shifting the structure of bat communities and altering fragile ecosystems.
AS SHE STANDS before the gaping, dripping entrance of Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel zipping into her Tyvek coveralls, graduate research assistant Pallavi Sirajuddin says, “Word of caution: Last week there was a copperhead just off the path in chamber B of the tunnel. If it is there again today, I will point it out to you.”
It is a clear late-fall day in the mountains north of Walhalla, just 20 miles from Clemson. Sirajuddin and a cohort of researchers are here to set up a complex tangle of coaxial cable, aerial antennas, super-sensitive listening devices and data loggers, with battery packs to power it all, along the 1,600-foot tunnel.
A few weeks from now, when the weather grows colder and tricolored bats turn Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel into their winter home, Sirajuddin and an assistant will begin applying tiny radio transmitters to the backs of the small creatures.
By recording body temperature and arousal patterns, these radio transmitters will help the researchers understand how decreased physiological activity during hibernation — known as torpor — makes the tricolored bats more susceptible to white-nose syndrome, the deadly fungal disease that is wiping out populations of bats across North America. The researchers will then compare data collected from the Stumphouse bats to data they collect from a healthy tricolored bat community that is hibernating in a cave with similar temperatures in Mississippi.
Nine bat species, including two endangered species and one threatened species, have been confirmed with white-nose syndrome in North America. The tricolored bat is not currently on the federal threatened and endangered species list, but reviews are being done to determine whether it should be listed, primarily due to mortality from white-nose syndrome.
Clemson’s location in the Southern Appalachians within a short distance of hibernation spaces such as Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel gives these researchers unique opportunities to make discoveries that might one day thwart or impede the scourge of white-nose syndrome.