Northeast Oklahoma is home to countless species that dwell within the vast woodlands that cover it. Among these is a mammal recently listed as a threatened species: the Northern long-eared bat.
The northern-long eared bat, "Myotis septentrionalis," was added to the threatened list primary due to a disease called "white-nose syndrome." The first documented case was found in Howes Cave in New York. The disease has since spread throughout Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, among other states.
According to Northeastern State University Associate Professor Dr. Michael Shaughnessy, one of the most asked questions about bat species was, "How come Europe doesn't have as many bats as North America?"
Then there was an international meeting of spelunkers and cavers in New York in 2005 at Howe Caverns.
"The very next year, the fungus [pseudogymnoascus destructans] started impacting the bat colonies in Howe Caverns," said Shaughnessy. "So what happened is, the spores of this fungus were brought over in the climbing gear from the European cavers, and they inoculated the cave in New York. Now we know why Europe doesn't have many bat species."
White-nose syndrome attacks the bat population when it's most vulnerable, during hibernation. Bats have a high metabolism, which is why they can consume up to 3,000 insects per night.
"The reason why they hibernate is because it allows them to avoid a period of time when their insect resources are essentially gone or so low that they couldn't support themselves on it," said Shaughnessy. "As this fungus grows on them, it disturbs them and rouses them from hibernation, which is physiologically very expensive; it takes a lot of energy to come out of hibernation."
Once an individual bat is awoken from hibernation, it's too cold and there aren't enough insects for it to survive, eventually leading to death. However, white-nose syndrome doesn't kill every bat it infects, and some species are more susceptible than others. The bats that become infected and make it through the winter then have a high chance of spreading that disease further.
"There's only so many places where they can sleep, hibernate and roost," said Stephen Nikolai, laboratory director at Grand River Dam Authority. "And they're very communal species. So they hang out right next to each other and they transport it from cave to cave, and from colony to colony, very quickly."
While populations of the northern long-eared bat dip, it's unclear what impact it will have on the Cherokee County ecosystem.
"Their most basic role is that of an insect predator," said Shaughnessy. "If they were to disappear, perhaps other bat populations would increase and take over that role, or perhaps not. Ecology is one of those things, where very often we don't understand the full impact that something is having on the ecosystem until it's gone."
Access to the many caves around the Northeastern Oklahoma area is highly restricted, as they're home to other bat species listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has gated many of the caverns known for housing bats, but they can live in other areas - which is why the GRDA wants to bring awareness to landowners.
"The biggest concern is just trying to protect their habitat to the best of our ability at this time," said Nikolai. "One thing we've done is we're trying to manage when people cut trees. In the summertime, they roost in trees, so they'll roost in loose bark, crevices or a dead tree."
Nikolai added that it's difficult to tell if a bat has taken shelter in someone's tree, so if there's an old or dying tree on a landowner's property, it should be left alone during the summer months.
While precautions can be taken, and people should avoid known bat caves, Shaughnessy isn't sure if white-nose syndrome will ever be stopped.
"I don't think there's going to be anything that can be done to stop it," he said. "Once Howe Caverns was inoculated, it was essentially going to spread. It's just how fast is it going to spread, and what is the level of damage it's going to do to bat species? It's like a ball rolling down a hill; it's going to keep rolling until it gets to the bottom."