Current Nature: Complex Conservation, Interactions between Pines, Bats, and Beetles

Libby Buck •

Pitch Pine Standat Linda Loring Nature Foundation

When someone describes Nantucket, they usually emphasize the miles of beaches and historic downtown; but very few people will mention the unique pockets of woods found here, especially our Pitch Pine forests. Pitch Pines are quirky trees that thrive in harsh conditions and sandy soils; that’s why they do so well on Nantucket. Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Lost Farm property is home to one of the island's most fantastic Pitch Pine forests.

Pitch Pines tend to grow in thick stands, and may initially seem like a mono-culture. Some may wonder why these trees are so important. One reason is that Pitch Pine forests are the crucial roosting habitat for Northern Long-eared Bats, a species that has recently been federally listed as endangered. Almost all bat populations worldwide have suffered from White-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungus that grows on the bat’s nose and wings and irritates the bats so much it will wake them out of hibernation. Infected bats become confused and try to find food and water, which can be fatal during winter.

Since most bat species are communal, they hibernate together, typically in caves or caverns; tight enclosed spaces where WNS spreads easily. Nantucket has no caves or caverns, so our bat population adapted to use Pitch Pines, especially the snags and cracks in the trees, as habitat.

A team of researchers that includes Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Wildlife Biologist, Danielle O’Dell, discovered bats using Pitch Pines here and have continued studying the population. From their research, we know that Nantucket bats only roost in small numbers or individually, which has dramatically slowed transmission of the WNS between Northern Long-eared Bats on Nantucket.

Northern Long eared Batwithtransmitteron Pitch Pinelbuck

Unfortunately, there are still minor cases of WNS on island. Since it’s still winter, it’s quite unusual to see a bat flying around right now, and can indicate the bat is sick with WNS. Whenever you see bats on island, the best thing to do is contact Danielle O’Dell,, or (508) 228-2884; she will help safely capture and bring it to a wildlife rehabber.

Please avoid touching the bat and wait for help from a trained responder with a current rabies vaccine. If an untrained individual touches a bat, especially without wearing protective gloves, the bat will unfortunately need to be euthanized, even if it is healthy. It is always better to call and ask for help rather than guess the best course of action because our bat population on island is in such a fragile state, making our Pitch Pine habitat even more vital.

However, the area of Pitch Pine habitat on our island is very small and is at risk, due to the range shift of the Southern Pine Beetle (SPB). The SPB is a bark beetle that has infested pine stands in the southeastern United States and is expanding northward in a warming climate. Although it is only the size of a grain of rice it could decimate our Pitch Pine habitat. To reproduce, SPB burrows into the bark of the live, growing part of the tree, where they lay eggs.

When beetle populations explode, this burrowing activity can overwhelm and kill its host tree. Devastating infestations have been documented up the east coast, allowing conservation managers and property owners to plan and prepare so we can prevent that level of destruction from occurring here.

Southern Pine Beetle entomologytoday

On Nantucket, the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation and local researchers have been trapping these invasive beetles at Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Head of the Plains, Nantucket Land Bank’s Gardner Farm, and near the Polpis Road water tower since 2018. The Southern Pine Beetle has been found on island, but luckily, they haven’t yet reached the number requiring an alarm. Their population here has, however, increased over time. To take steps in prevention, conservation organizations (Nantucket Land Bank, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Massachusetts’s Audubon Society, and Linda Loring Nature Foundation) that have Pitch Pine stands have collaborated to assess the Pitch Pine population across the island.

To learn more about the Southern Pine Beetle, join the Linda Loring Nature Foundation for our next Science Pub on March 13th with Nicole Keleher, Forest Health Program Director from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. She will present the status of the invasive Southern Pine Beetle in our region and offer management recommendations for forest health. Science Pub is a free presentation and discussion that offers an opportunity to meet ecological researchers and learn about their work. Questions and feedback are encouraged! Register here.

Optimal ecological conservation favors management decisions that promote the health of ecosystems as a whole. Learning more about the interactions between Pitch Pine, Northern Long-eared Bats, and Southern Pine Beetles, will enable island conservation organizations to make balanced decisions to support native biodiversity.

Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.

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