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It's almost Halloween: researchers seek bat populations wintering in North Dakota


photo of Dr. Erin GillamWhile some people avoid Halloween icons such as bats, one North Dakota State University researcher needs your help in finding locations of bat populations in central and eastern North Dakota—before winter officially arrives.

Do you know of a place in North Dakota where bat populations may be living during the winter?  If so, please contact Dr. Erin Gillam at to include locations on the list of sites for research.

“While many people find bats scary, they actually play very important roles in our environment,” said Dr. Erin Gillam, associate professor in Biological Sciences at NDSU.

“Bats eat lots of crop pests, which ultimately means that they save farmers lots of money.  Unfortunately, a disease called White Nose Syndrome has been devastating bat populations in the eastern United States, and since the disease was first found in 2006, it has killed approximately 6 million bats,” said Gillam.

The disease has been spreading rapidly from the east toward the western and southern parts of the U.S. The disease hasn’t yet reached North Dakota but it is close—with the nearest report in eastern Minnesota. Dr. Gillam is conducting research funded by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to better understand how bat populations in North Dakota may be vulnerable to this disease.

photo of brown bat in North DakotaWhite Nose Syndrome only impacts bats while they are hibernating during the winter months. Over the last few winters, Dr. Gillam and NDSU students have been tracking bats that hibernate in the caves and rock crevices of the Badlands of western North Dakota.  This winter, researchers want to learn the locations where bats spend their winter in central and eastern North Dakota. Bats that spend the winter in these areas often will be roosting in buildings spread across the prairie, since few natural caves are present.

Dr. Gillam also is collaborating with researchers at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, to survey more of the state, but researchers need help from the public.  While the research team knows of a few sites where bats spend the winter in North Dakota, they need to locate many more building sites to be able to get the information they need to study this disease.

The research team will be studying what species are present and what type of structures they prefer to live in, but won’t remove the bats from any locations.

As you are thinking about places you know where bats might winter in North Dakota so you can share that information with the research team, here are some bat facts, in time for Halloween.

Bats: Myth vs Fact

Myth: Bats are blind.
: They actually see better than humans do in the dark. Their echolocation is a superior sense compared to sight, particularly at night, so they don’t rely on sight much.

Myth: Bats get caught in your hair.
: When you are walking outside, your body heat is attracting insects, which then attracts the bats that are looking for their next insect meal. While they might get close to you, bats are way too good at flying to actually get caught in your hair.

Myth:  Bats are flying mice.
: Bats are mammals, not birds and not mice with wings. Their bodies are highly adapted and evolved for the specific life they lead.

Myth: Bats are a nuisance.
: Bats are important to ecosystems. Bats eat insects, including mosquitoes. A small brown bat can collect and eat anywhere from 600 to 1200 mosquito-sized insects in one hour. In areas of the U.S., bats help agriculture by feeding on insects such as cutworms, potato beetles, grasshoppers and corn-borer moths. They also pollinate more than 300 species of fruit. Bats are the only animal that naturally pollinates the agave plant that is used to create nectar and tequila.

About bat research at NDSU
Dr. Gillam’s previous research findings have appeared in National Geographic, the PBS Kids program DragonFly TV, New Scientist, Wired, Journal of Animal Behaviour, and the New York Times, among others.

As a researcher, Dr. Gillam notes that bats clearly get a bad reputation based on myths about them. She doesn’t mind that her promotion of bat ecology sometimes results in the name Bat Lady. Even though she doesn’t keep her car in a bat cave, she has been known to drive a gray pickup truck with “I love bats” on the license plate.

Erin Gillam received a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Maryland in College Park. She previously served as an instructor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. Dr. Gillam has been teaching and providing research opportunities to students at NDSU since 2009.


About NDSU
, Fargo, North Dakota, USA, is notably listed among the top 108 U.S. public and private universities in the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education’s category of “Research Universities/Very High Research Activity.” NDSU is listed in the Top 100 research universities in the U.S. for R&D in agricultural sciences, chemistry, computer sciences, physical sciences, psychology, and social sciences, based on research expenditures reported to the National Science Foundation. As a student-focused, land-grant, research university, we serve our citizens.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.

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