The biologists glued pinky-nail sized radio transmitters to five of the mouse-sized bats to track the tiny animals from White County, Tennessee. They expected the bats to fly north into the heart of their usual habitat, but one flew 150 miles south to a "maternity colony" -- a birthing place for bats -- in a dead loblolly pine tree in the lowlands of Shoal Creek in Talladega National Forest.
The Indiana bat maternity colony in Shoal Creek was the first and only of its kind to be discovered in Alabama, said Johnathan Stober, a wildlife biologist at the Shoal Creek Ranger District. It’s the farthest south a colony has been found, he said.
The bats were first discovered in Indiana, where about 50 percent of the roughly 400,000 remaining Indiana bats now live. They hibernate in caves in the winter and disperse in the spring when the females go to maternity colonies where they stay for the summer to give birth to a pup, said Lori Pruitt, Indiana bat recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“They are very difficult to find,” Pruitt said, adding that there may be more in Alabama. “I think it probably is likely that there are other ones, and they’re just hard to find.”
She said wildlife biologists believe they have discovered 10 percent of the bat’s maternity colonies. In Indiana, the colonies are usually located in dead hardwood trees where the bats find shelter beneath loose flakes of bark.
The colony in Shoal Creek is a little different than those typical in Indiana. Here the bats have made a home of the loblolly pine and instead of living behind flakes of loose bark, they’ve made homes in old woodpecker nests inside the dead tree, Stober said. He estimates that roughly 30 of the endangered bats are living there this summer.
Though the bats are most abundant in Indiana, they are also found across parts of the eastern United States. They likely numbered in the millions before the country was settled by Europeans, Pruitt said.
Their numbers began to decline at the turn of the century when their winter habitats were disrupted as cave exploration became popular, she said. Their summer habitats were also reduced as farmers cut down woodland to make more room for their crops, she said.
Tracking the bats to Alabama from Tennessee was no easy task. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Copperhead Environmental Consulting, a company that helps track bats, joined to help complete the task.
After tacking the tracking devices on the bats with surgical glue, scientists with the environmental consulting company began tracking them in flight. Scientists believe two of the bats returned to the cave, they lost track of one of the bats and the other two bats flew south. One went to Georgia and the other to the maternity colony in south Alabama.
It took two teams to track the bats to their respective locations. Each team consisted of four members, two of whom flew in a plane above the animals and two of whom drove in a car beneath them.
The two people in the plane tracked the animal with the help of a radio receiver while communicating to the two-person team on the ground via walkie-talkies. To ensure the plane didn’t fly out of reach of the radio transmitter, the pilots flew in circles above the slower-moving bats until they reach their destination.
By mid-April one of the tiny bats had settled in the loblolly in Shoal Creek Ranger District. It may have led scientists to discover more than a bat-laden tree in the forest floor, it may have led them to discover more significant things about the life and habits of the bat, biologists said.
“It may be a movement,” Pruitt said. “It could potentially be that there is some kind of change going on.”
Staff Writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter@LJohnson_Star.