Cheyenne Stirling researches bats in Glacier

Montana’s wilderness is a fascinating research environment for those lucky enough to study it, and Cheyenne Stirling became one of those fortunate scientists over the summer while researching bats in Glacier National Park.

Stirling, a senior from Shelby, Mont. majoring in fish and wildlife management and minoring in environmental horticulture. She first wanted to attend the University of Montana, but she was familiar with the school and she wanted to experience something new. “I chose the adventure,” said Stirling about her decision to attend MSU.

Over the summer, Stirling had the opportunity to take her adventure beyond Bozeman and into Glacier National Park, where she conducted research on the roosting locations of bats. Stirling received the Jerry O’Neal National Park Student Fellowship, a grant created for students to conduct studies in three areas of Montana: Glacier National Park, Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site or Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. In Glacier, Stirling worked with wildlife biologist Lisa Bate. The goal of Stirling’s research was to gain an idea of the specific buildings and the types of buildings where bats are living in the park as preparation for white-nose syndrome (WNS), a disease caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, to potentially reach Montana. If the fungus arrives, “my supervisor can go back through and look at my data and go to the exact building we need to check out,” Stirling said.

P. destructans is a psychrophilic fungus which thrives in cold environments. It affects bats during the winter while they are hibernating and do not have any expendable energy. “It’s a fungus that affects bats in hibernacula, which is where all the bats stay together mostly in caves right now,” Stirling explained. “They fly out, and it just takes away from all their energy and the fungus starts to eat away at them. It just sucks the life out of them. They haven’t found any way to cure it and they’re dying in masses.”   

Stirling said that WNS has nearly a 100 percent mortality rate in bats, and while she originally did not have any interest in studying bats, as she learned more about the virus she realized its importance and pursued the topic. She said that her research, specifically searching for the types of structures where bats roost, is the only research of its type being done in Montana: “We need bats in our ecosystem.”

Stirling was surprised to learn that bats have an affinity for tin roofing and that it is difficult to detect bats in buildings. She explained that she spent a lot of time searching for bat feces. Most bat activity occurs at night, and while Stirling could only count up to 25 bats in the daytime, she was able to count 950 bats on the side of one building by doing an emergence count at night.

Stirling’s experience with bats was a unique one. She had to get a rabies vaccine but was then able to handle the bats through a process called mist netting, wherein nets were set up around dusk until around 2 a.m. Bats flew into the nets, and Stirling could take them out and hold them. Stirling’s favorite type of bat, the Hoarey bat, is a soft bat with a bear-like appearance that goes into torpor when it gets cold, freezing when it flies into the mist net. “When you’re taking them out of the net you think that you killed the bat, but you warm them up by putting them in a bag and then putting them in your jacket, and you can feel them moving and you can feel their heartbeat against yours,” Stirling said. “It’s very interesting. People don’t get that close to species they do research on ever.”

Stirling’s summer experience in Glacier included not only bat research, but also bear sightings during various adventures. “I saw about 15 bears over the summer, and we almost hit a couple on our bikes,” she said. Stirling’s favorite thing about being in Glacier was exploring the beautiful backcountry.

Outside of academics, Stirling is an avid climber. She was bouldering in Joe’s Valley, Utah during spring break when she applied for the Jerry O’Neal Fellowship. Stirling found out about the fellowship from one of her professors, Dr. Andrea Litt. After graduating from MSU this fall, Stirling would like to learn more about being a technician for research then eventually attend graduate school. In the meantime, she continues to analyze the research she collected over the summer as part of an independent study for credit at MSU.