FRD’s Meteorological Observations to Assist Biologists Studying White-Nose Syndrome in Bats

October 2018

ARL’s Field Research Division (FRD) operates meteorological towers that characterize winds in Southeastern Idaho’s Snake River Plain and, ultimately, help to advance understanding of processes occurring in the atmospheric boundary layer where we live. These towers are located in and around the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), an area known to contain multiple caves where the resident bat population hibernates each winter. To the average individual, there is no obvious correlation between these facts; however, the location of FRD’s towers means that the division is uniquely qualified to provide much-needed scientific data to biologists studying the local bat population for signs of White-nose Syndrome (WNS). Specifically, FRD’s talented team of meteorologists, engineers, and technicians are collaborating with area biologists to investigate meteorological factors potentially related to the spread of WNS in bats – a devastating disease responsible for killing millions of the creatures each year in North America and a key driver of increased emphasis on understanding the winter behavior of bats.

Recent research indicates that bats intermittently become active during their hibernation period, which, in Idaho, lasts from November through March, and fly outside their caves. These periods of activity during the cold season are believed to be linked to the spread of WNS, and there is limited evidence that the activity is correlated with changes in weather variables. Previous research, which relied on a much smaller data set, suggested that changes in temperature and barometric pressure might be most closely correlated with cold-season activity by bats. Further research is necessary to better understand the potential linkages between bat activity and weather, to discern which variables are most important, and to determine whether the linkages differ among climate regions.

INL area biologists plan to combine meteorological observations from FRD’s network of monitoring towers and associated sensors with acoustic observations of bat activity (e.g. records of their noises, or “calls”) to better understand the effects of weather on bat hibernation behavior. Since the biologists have acoustic data on bat activity for the last seven seasons (November 2011 through March 2018), FRD is providing detailed meteorological data for that same period. The group is focusing on multiple variables, including air temperature, humidity, wind speed, barometric pressure, and precipitation. Analysis activities are likely to span the next several months.

Close-up of a brown bat's white nose
A little brown bat with White-nose Syndrome. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Tall metal tower with wires and sensors, with truck parked at the base for size comparison
One of FRD's meteorological towers. Credit: NOAA