White-nose Syndrome

White-nose syndrome is an emerging infectious disease in bats caused by the fungal pathogen, Pseudogymnoascus destructans. As it continues to spread across North America, we are observing significant population declines in many species. However, there is considerable variation in the magnitude of declines among species. Our lab focuses on examining demographic patterns of infected bat populations, using modeling approaches to generate hypotheses about the mechanisms driving those patterns, and empirically testing those hypotheses to inform conservation management.

Currently Funded Projects
Are Bat Populations Infected with White-Nose Syndrome Undergoing Rapid Natural Selection?
Co-Investigators: Malin Pinsky (Rutgers) and Nina H. Fefferman (University of Tennessee Knoxville)
Sponsor: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Despite catastrophic declines as a result of white-nose syndrome (WNS), some bat populations appear to be stabilizing in the years following initial infection. Our recent demographic analyses demonstrate that survival in infected little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) rebounds markedly relative to the initial WNS-induced mortality event. These results suggest that either there exists an adaptive immunity-based defense in individuals that have survived initial infection, or that the initial onslaught of WNS at a hibernaculum created a severe selective pressure that caused mortality of the well-represented genotype(s) and favored survival of a rare, WNS-resistant genotype. In the former case (adaptive immunity hypothesis), unmanaged bat populations are expected to continue to decline slowly until extinction; but in the latter case, populations are predicted to revert to positive growth after some time, a phenomenon known as evolutionary rescue. Successful conservation hinges upon knowing which mechanism is driving population dynamics; managers have only a limited window in which to intervene and they must apply the appropriate conservation tool given the nature of the decline. We will empirically test the evolutionary rescue hypothesis in little brown bats by quantifying the standing genetic variation that exists within and among natural little brown bat populations and comparing genomic signatures of bottlenecks and natural selection among populations with parallel infection histories and unexposed populations. Our approach will determine whether WNS is acting as a selection-neutral population bottleneck, or if a disease-induced selective sweep has occurred. In the latter case, the evolutionary rescue hypothesis is supported. Based on these analysis, we can make informed recommendations on the most appropriate conditional strategies for sustaining remnant infected populations while proactively planning for WNS arrival in unaffected regions.

Annual Survival of Indiana Bats after White-nose Syndrome and its Implications for Population Recovery

Co-Investigator: Chris Sanders (Sanders Environmental, Inc.)

Sponsor: Wildlife Management Institute

Management of bat populations affected by White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) is challenged by a lack of data on temporal changes in demographic response. Quantification of annual survival rates and demographic trends among remnant colonies of hibernating bats that experienced mass mortality from WNS is needed to determine long-term population viability of species impacted by this disease and to implement effective and feasible management intervention. Using mark-recapture data, we will estimate the first apparent annual survival rates for infected Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) for five years following WNS detection at a site and explicitly test the hypothesis that annual survival ameliorates with time since WNS arrival (as we have previously demonstrated for little brown bats [Myotis lucifugus]). Using a stochastic matrix projection model, we will examine the long-term population trajectory for infected Indiana bats, and we will conduct a vital rate sensitivity analysis to identify the demographic parameter(s) most important to target to maximize recovery potential. Results of this project will provide information critical to understanding whether Indiana bats are responding adaptively to WNS infection, and if that response is sufficient to support long-term recovery. It will also lay the groundwork for targeting appropriate management actions to support small populations in the short-term to reduce negative stochastic impacts and Allee effects while WNS treatments are under investigation.

Ecosystem services and bats

It is well-documented that bats are significant purveyors of ecosystem services. Our lab is particularly interested in understanding the role insectivorous bats play in integrated pest management. Combining field work with molecular ecology and mathematical modeling, we seek to quantify insect consumption in bats and translate that consumption into economic terms.

Currently Funded Projects

Analyzing Bat Guano for Agricultural Pests to Reduce Brown Marmorated Stink Bug Populations and Improve Bat Habitat on Farms

Co-Investigator: Dina M. Fonseca (Rutgers)

Sponsor: USDA-NRCS

This project will demonstrate that bats can provide an important ecological service to the U.S. agricultural industry through predation of the invasive agricultural pest, the brown marmorated stink bug, as well as other secondary insect pests (e.g., Oriental fruit moth, tufted apple bud moth). Using molecular DNA analysis of insect fragments in bat guano, we will show that bats consume these agricultural pests in quantities sufficient to enhance integrated pest management approaches. This initiative will also increase habitat availability on farms for cavity-roosting bats.

Bats as Tools for the Early Detection of Agricultural Pests

Co-Investigator: Jeff Foster (University of New Hampshire)

Sponsor: USDA-NRCS

Invasive insects cost the agricultural industry billions of dollars annually in crop losses and associated management. Timely detection of these pests is critical because management efficiency decreases exponentially with time since detection. Innovative strategies that maximize sampling resolution across space and time may improve surveillance, and ultimately, control of agricultural insect pests. This work will determine the extent to which bats can detect and consume agricultural insect pests earlier than standard monitoring practices, and it will compare the economic costs associated with each methodology. Using novel molecular assays of insect DNA in bat guano, we will identify a suite of agricultural insect pests consumed by bats; compare the detectability of agricultural pests among bat guano samples, blacklight traps, and pheromone traps; examine the time to detection of insects identified using multiple monitoring strategies; and evaluate the costs associated with each monitoring strategy. Accelerating early detection capabilities through this innovative practice can potentially increase effectiveness of integrated pest management (IPM) strategies by reducing the frequency and intensity of pesticide applications, which provides economic benefits to growers while minimizing unnecessary chemical inputs to the environment. Improved pest surveillance can also slow the establishment of newly invading insects. In the same way that valuation of native bee pollination improved standard agricultural practices, dissemination of this new ecosystem service provided by bats to regulatory agencies (through various reports, forums, and symposia) can change current practices to increase economic and environmental sustainability.

Conservation of Beach-nesting Birds

Beach-nesting birds are important ecosystem constituents on sandy shores, yet are threatened by depressed reproductive success resulting from direct and indirect anthropogenic and natural pressures. Threats include intense predation from natural and introduced predators, habitat degradation from beach stabilization practices, human disturbance, and sea level rise. Our lab performs demographic analyses, predictive habitat modeling, and ecological planning and design, working directly with state and federal wildlife agencies, to address conservation needs.

Currently Funded Projects

Protection of Critical Beach-nesting Bird Habitats in the Wake of Severe Coastal Storms

Co-Investigator: Todd Pover (Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey)

Sponsor: North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative

This project will develop a protocol to identify and prioritize for protection newly created beach-nesting bird breeding habitat along the U.S. Atlantic Coast in the wake of severe coastal storms. Using long-term nest monitoring data from New Jersey and statistically robust habitat modeling techniques, we will model changes to beach-nesting bird habitat suitability in New Jersey resulting from Hurricane Sandy and assess the subsequent anthropogenic impacts of storm recovery efforts at these sites. Through this initiative, we will provide evidence-based support for beach-nesting bird managers to protect critical habitats for piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus), least terns (Sternula antillarum), and black skimmers (Rynchops niger).

Barnegat Light Beach-nesting Bird Habitat Restoration Plan, Barnegat Light, New Jersey

Co-Investigators: Jeremiah Bergstrom (Rutgers), Todd Pover (Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey)

Sponsor: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Barnegat Light, New Jersey is located on the northern tip of Long Beach Island, a barrier island in Ocean County. An approximately 5,600-ft long rock jetty stabilizes the Barnegat Inlet to the north, which has halted the natural coastal dynamics typically associated with inlet beaches. Prevention of aeolian sand transport and wave scour has promoted the formation of large dunes and dense vegetative cover, significantly reducing the quality of the habitat for breeding beach-nesting birds. The site has supported, on average, 1-2 nesting pairs of piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) and American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) for the last decade. However, it has great potential to support additional birds, if restored. We have developed a habitat restoration plan for Barnegat Light to maximize the availability of suitable nesting substrate, create high-quality foraging resources, and maintain habitat quality for the long term.

Ecological Restoration

Our lab combines ecology, engineering and landscape architecture to develop and implement ecological restoration plans.

Currently Funded Projects

Woodbridge Township Open Space and Flood Plain Restoration Plan

Woodbridge Township, New Jersey

Co-Investigator: Jeremiah Bergstrom (Rutgers)

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012), multiple residential properties within the Woodbridge Township flood plain were severely impacted by flooding. As a proactive approach for increasing the resiliency of its municipality, Woodbridge Township successfully secured funds through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Blue Acres Program to purchase flood prone properties located within the Township’s flood plain. The primary objectives of this initiative were to protect safety and health of Township residents by encouraging homeowners to relocate permanently to higher elevation areas; and restore the natural function of the flood plain to promote storage and infiltration of stormwater in appropriate areas, particularly during significant storm events. The Township has partnered with Rutgers Cooperative Extension (RCE) to better understand the opportunities for and benefits of these newly acquired properties to maximize flood storage, provide recreational opportunities, and support diverse wildlife habitats.

Aquaculture Impacts to Migratory Shorebirds

Currently Funded Projects

Identifying the Impacts of Commercial Oyster Aquaculture on Foraging Behavior of Red Knots in Delaware Bay

Co-Investigators: Julie L. Lockwood (Rutgers), Dave Bushek (Rutgers), Joanna Burger (Rutgers)

Sponsor: NJ Sea Grant

 We propose to quantify the impact of Delaware Bayshore commercial intertidal oyster aquaculture activities on the ability of migratory shorebirds, particularly the federally listed red knot (Calidris canutus rufa), to forage effectively. We will gather shorebird census data and a suite of red knot foraging metrics, using focused behavioral observations, and relate them to specific oyster aquaculture tending activities (e.g., powerwashing, bag maintenance, harvesting). This effort will allow us to calculate the effect of each aquaculture tending activity on the overall selection of foraging sites by shorebirds and the rate at which individual shorebirds forage. This effort provides a critical baseline understanding of how commercial oyster aquaculture, as it is currently practiced, is affecting shorebird foraging. This project is part of a broader effort to incorporate red knot bioenergetics and aquaculture economics into informative models, and alone provides a gauge as to how modifying particular aquaculture activities will translate into increased red knot foraging. The information we obtain through this proposed project can advance the development of red knot protections while facilitating the search for effective solutions in resolving potential conflicts between economic growth and biological conservation along the Delaware Bayshore.