At only about 3 inches tall and tipping the scales at roughly 7 ounces, the northern long-eared bat is tiny.
But the recent discovery of two of these rare creatures in Beaufort County is huge news for animal researchers.
The bats were captured by members the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy inside the gates of the heavily wooded Bluffton community — hundreds of miles south of their traditional habitat.
Typically found in mountain forests, the bats have never before been identified in coastal South Carolina.
The discovery late last year of the pair — one male and one female — in Palmetto Bluff “came as quite a shock,” conservancy associate director Mary Socci said Monday.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Morgan Wolf said the bats — designated as a threatened species by the federal government and highly vulnerable to a deadly disease called white-nose syndrome — have historically been considered cave-dwellers.
If the bats have found a permanent home in the Lowcountry, it could offer a reprieve from white-nose syndrome — an infection caused by a fungus that grows in caves.
Because that fungus — responsible for the deaths of millions of bats across North America — has never been detected in Beaufort County, “we are really excited about the possibility of having a (northern long-eared bat) population here,” Socci said.
Wolf agreed, saying the Palmetto Bluff discovery could be “really good news” for the ongoing survival of the species.
“If they are hanging out in trees and not in caves, they are less likely to come in contact with the fungus,” she said.
A happy accident
Researchers with the conservancy, a nonprofit group dedicated to studying and conserving natural resources in Palmetto Bluff, didn’t set out to find northern long-eared bats.
With help from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the conservancy was studying the behavior of northern yellow bats, a species commonly found in coastal areas such as the Lowcountry.
“We were able to collect a lot of interesting data and information” by netting the bats and tracking their movements with small transmitters, Socci said.
But in November, a researcher netted a pair of bats that looked very different from the northern yellow bats researchers were accustomed to catching.
“They looked like northern long-eared bats,” Socci said. “But we were pretty hesitant and uncertain because (Beaufort County) is so far from where they had been found in the past.”
Previously, scientists had found the species only in more mountainous areas of the northern part of South Carolina, she said.
So, staff with the conservancy sent hair samples to a laboratory at Northern Arizona University.
Then they waited.
To their pleasant surprise, DNA tests proved their theory correct: The region’s first northern long-eared bats had been discovered in Bluffton.
An opportunity to learn more
The Palmetto Bluff discovery “was incredibly exciting,” SCDNR wildlife biologist Jennifer Kindel said. “We really don’t know a lot about this species and what might have brought it to the coast.”
“We need to focus more research on the coast so we can figure out exactly what (the bats) are up to,” she said.
Now that there is evidence that there could be a northern long-eared bat population in Beaufort County, agencies like SCDNR may be apt to devote more of their limited resources to studying the animal in coastal environments, she said.
If northern long-eared bats are discovered in other areas along the South Carolina coast, researchers say that would be a great sign for the threatened species.
Until then, Beaufort County can lay claim to the only two ever found in the region.
“We are really proud of the work we do,” Socci said. “It’s great that the (the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy) gets to play a role in things like this.”