Students research bat disease and impact on ecosystem

February 6, 2014
Bat research

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Bats may have a bad reputation, but living without them could be costly. Dr. Jeffrey Huebschman, biology professor and department chair, and his students are very aware of this issue. Huebschman started his career at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2003. He began research on bats in graduate school and decided to continue that research at UW-Platteville.

Bat research and monitoring at UW-Platteville began with general survey work in the Platteville area and on campus. This high impact practice provides undergraduate experience for UW-Platteville students in fieldwork and research. Before this, bat research had been scarce in southwest Wisconsin.

The UW-Platteville researchers have collaborated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regularly. One project involved acoustic monitoring of bat activity. This type of technology takes the bats’ use of echolocation and turns it into sound the human ear can perceive.

Students catch bats on campus using mist nets to determine the species, sex, age-class, reproductive condition and general health of the bat before releasing it. Since 2004, UW-Platteville researchers have sampled over 1000 individual bats from the region and have documented seven different species on campus.  

During the winter 2006-2007, a disease called white-nose syndrome was discovered in New York. This disease confused many bat specialists who had no explanation for the disease. A type of fungus that grows on the bats while they are hibernating during the winter causes the disease. The fungus can be found in caves and mines that have cool temperatures and high humidity. The fungus infects skin of the muzzle, ears and wings of bats. “In caves and mines where the fungus is present mortality rate of hibernating bats may exceed 90 percent,” said Huebschman.

“It is hypothesized that the fungus has European origins, where it has been documented but has no ill effects on bats, and was unintentionally introduced into North America,” Huebschman explains. “After the initial contact in New York, the fungus has spread via human interaction and by the bats themselves.”

White-nose syndrome has moved as far west as Missouri and has inhabited places near Wisconsin including Minnesota and Iowa. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources annually conducts surveillance for signs and evidence of the fungus within the state. Last year, the disease was not detected in Wisconsin. Survey work for this winter is already underway.

The UW-Platteville data has been useful in determining the baseline data of bats in southwest Wisconsin, or the data one would see in a healthy bat population. This data can be used to see the impact this disease could have on the Wisconsin bat population and ecosystem.

“The impact this disease can have on our environment is huge. Bats are insectivores, and as insect-eaters they eat a lot of insects,” said Huebschman. “If we remove these insect consumers, insect pest populations may increase. There will be many fundamental changes to our ecosystem resulting from the decline of bat populations.”

Justin G. Boyles, author of “Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture,” writes that the economic impact of a largely decreased bat population on the United States agriculture industry could be detrimental. Boyles suggests the loss could range from “$3.7 billion per year and as high as $53 billion per year.” This deficit would be the result of insect over-population. Huebschman concedes that it is hard to predict the exact impact that the bat population loss will have.

Contact: Dr. Jeffrey Huebschman, biology department, (608) 342-1742,

Written by: Megan Schmidt, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications, (608) 342-1194,


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