Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer
High above the platform for world-renowned lecturers, resounding symphonies and graceful ballets, two men — armed with a device that looks like an old-fashioned transistor radio — investigate a dark, sweltering area of the Amphitheater few people aside from stagehands ever see.
A musty scent lingers in the dusty air, and the worn, wooden floor is wrought with holes that could send someone through with one miscalculated step. Light peeks in through the holes, revealing a small glimpse of the programs below, a stage for more than a century of Chautauqua tradition.
John Shedd, Chautauqua’s administrator of architecture and land use regulations and capital projects manager, is joined by John Hermanson, a professor of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.
They are on a hunt. Their target: bats.
Shedd and Hermanson have ventured backstage, up a cramped flight of stairs and through a squat hallway with the device in hand — a bat detector that takes high-frequency bat sounds that humans typically can’t hear and makes them audible.
Hermanson, a bat expert, was invited by Chautauqua Institution prior to the start of the 2012 Season to investigate the bat population as part of the planning process for the rehabilitation of the Amphitheater. Preserving the bat habitat is one of many issues being addressed at this stage in the project.
Hermanson is looking for any clues as to where the bats might be. He is hoping for an accurate count of how many are living in the attic area.
Signs of life
When investigating a site, Hermanson looks for bat droppings; if it’s dusk, he looks for flying bats and attempts to pinpoint where they are coming from. In the Amphitheater attic, he finds only two areas with a small amount of droppings between two rafters in the northeast corner.
“Previously, we’ve had to shovel it out of here,” Shedd said.
As they walk around the attic space, the men make noise and jiggle things around hoping to stir up some activity. No luck.
Summer is the time of year bats are supposed to be in Chautauqua, Hermanson said, because they are either pregnant or preparing to give birth. The Amp roof is a perfect place for a maternity roost of bats.
“It’s dark, and it’s hot, and if they like classical music, they couldn’t pick a better place,” he said.
Even so, it doesn’t appear there are many bats calling the Amp home.
“Based on what I saw … there isn’t a very big colony up there at the moment,” he said.
Shedd recalls stories of many bat colonies living in the Amp at one time.
“Either it’s urban legend or the population has significantly decreased,” he said.
And the population has decreased.
A threat in Howes Cave
White-nose syndrome, a fungus that eats away at bats’ tissue when they are hibernating, has decimated the population.
In February 2006, about 40 miles west of Albany, N.Y., in Howes Cave, a caver photographed hibernating bats with an unusual white substance on their muzzles, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The man also noticed several bat carcasses in the cave. The next year, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation biologists reported more bats with white noses behaving erratically and hundreds of dead bats in a number of caves.
In 2007, white-nose syndrome was officially documented; since then, millions of hibernating bats have died as a result.
The disease is named for the white fungus, Geomyces destructans, that infects skin of the muzzle, ears and wings of hibernating bats, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Current estimates of bat population declines in the northeastern U.S. since the emergence of the disease are at approximately 80 percent, according the USGS website, and it will be almost impossible for affected bat species to recover quickly.
Most bat species are long-lived. They have a single pup each year, so even in the absence of disease, bat populations do not fluctuate wildly over time.
Hibernation sites can see mortality rates of 95 percent during the winter, Hermanson said. And in the winter, hibernation colonies can have 75,000 to 90,000 bats in them.
“If you have 95 percent mortality, how many dead bats do you pick up off the ground?” he said. “A couple of these places, they would show up in January and there would be piles of dead bats at the mouth of the cave.”
White nose syndrome is like athlete’s foot; it irritates constantly, waking the bats up from hibernation. Each time a bat wakes up, it can burn one-third of the body fat it has stored for the winter.
Bats have been on the planet between 50 million and 60 million years, and they make up 25 percent of all mammal species, said Caroline Bissell, a lifelong Chautauquan and local bat expert.
Bissell leads weekly Bat Chats during the season to educate children and adults about the mammals.
Since the emergence of white-nose syndrome, 6.7 million to 7.5 million little brown bats have died, she said.
Every week, she tells audiences what is lost when bats die. Each bat is a natural pesticide, eating thousands of pesky insects each night. Without them, farmers take a hit. That important role is often missed because of fear.
It doesn’t help that popular culture portrays them as menacing creatures of the night.
“Hollywood has done a real number on them and made them ferocious when they’re very gentle little creatures,” Bissell said.
It’s her job to take away the fear factor.
“If somebody comes and they hate bats, and they leave my talk and they don’t hate them, then I’ve really made progress,” she said.
It is because of weekly talks such as hers that people in Chautauqua love and care about preserving the bat population, she said.
“I just think that people here in Chautauqua have been trained to love bats and to care about them,” Bissell said. “I do my best to keep that going.”
The need for protection
As the unofficial mascot of the Institution, it is no surprise that Chautauquans love their bats. It was the community’s love for bats that prompted Shedd and other Institution leaders to proactively protect the Amp’s bat population in the first place.
During pre-planning public forums, members of the community were given a chance to voice concerns of things they felt important to preserve during the rehabilitation process. Bats made the list.
Shedd has been talking to experts about ways to protect them during construction as well as inviting them back after the massive project is finished.
It is not only a matter of protecting the bats, Shedd said, but one of protecting the construction workers and contractors.
The two dangers that bats could potentially pose to humans are rabies and histoplasmosis, a fungal lung disease contracted from bat droppings.
“We’re finding that there will probably be something written into the contract documents that will describe to the contractors the means that they have to take to protect the bat population and the construction workers,” he said.
Based on his findings in the beginning of the summer, Hermanson concluded that there are not enough bats living in the Amp to damage the population by doing construction.
Still, even a small number of bats should be protected, he said.
There already has been significant numbers of little brown bats that have died, Hermanson said, and the best way to help them is by limiting any unnecessary stress.
“If you’ve got 40 pregnant females in the Amphitheater and you can let them have their pups and then do construction in October,” he said, “that’s probably the best thing you can do for them right now.”