This article was featured in the January 2012 newsletter
When Dr. Iudica snaps on his rubber gloves he is ready for work, be it at the biology lab, crawling through a cave, or even discovering interesting road-side specimens. This Associate Professor of Biology at Susquehanna University studies the birds, reptiles and mammals that live along the Susquehanna River and his work is part of the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies. Some of his research involves monitoring the food sources of small animals in the watershed, which means analyzing the stomach contents of foxes, minks, coyotes, and soon bobcats will be added to his list.
As opportunistic as the animals he studies, Dr. Iudica admits that he carries gloves and plastic bags in his car “just in case” happens upon a roadside specimen in good condition. Dr. Iudica vividly describes seeing a mink perish on a road near Lewisburg, activating his hazard lights, and leaving his car to race a fellow witness to the collect the mink. “He was a farmer on a tractor, and I was on foot. We both headed to the mink, but I got there first,” says Iudica with a smile. By studying the feeding ecology of minks, Dr. Iudica and his students can consider the roles different prey play on the survivorship of these important riverine carnivores. Their fat tissue also harbors mercury and studying these levels can reveal information about mercury levels in the water.
Until this past year, Dr. Iudica and his students had studied a colony of bats along the Isle of Que near Selinsgrove. “It was so exciting to find a colony so close to the university, and with such a wonderful landowner who welcomed the students and valued the educational experience,” says Dr. Iudica. The colony was seasonally housed in a barn and consisted of three different species and about 3,000 animals upon first count. Unfortunately, the scientists recorded fewer bats with each passing year, and found none of these mammals on their last count. Dr. Iudica attributes this to “white nose syndrome,” a disease-causing fungus that interferes with hibernation and has killed bats in large numbers, resulting in an 80% population decline for certain species in the northeastern U.S. “As scientists, we are seeing large piles of dead bats on the floors of the caves where they hibernate, and even locally anyone can observe fewer bats in the summer skies,” says Iudica. “When considering the river this is troubling news, since bats play an important ecological role. They feed of a number of insects that include notorious crop pests.”
With fewer animals to provide this ecological service for free, one negative outcome could be that farmers will have to rely more on expensive pesticides that are also detrimental to water quality. While scientists across the nation will continue to study the syndrome, its source, spread, and possible cure, Dr. Iudica will continue his observations and is writing a book on bats to be published next year. If you are interested in learning more about white nose syndrome research, check out this U.S. Geological Survey podcast.
Photos courtesy of Carlos Iudica