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Burning the Leafy Blanket: Winter Prescribed Fire and Litter Roosting Bats

Photo of Fire approaching study plots during a winter controlled burned in the Ouachita Mountains. USDA Forest ServiceFire approaching study plots during a winter controlled burned in the Ouachita Mountains. USDA Forest ServiceSnapshot : Rather than hibernating in caves, some bat species in the southeastern U.S. get through the coldest parts of winter by roosting under fallen leaves, twigs, and other dead plant material on the forest floor. Although this leaf litter protects bats from the cold, it could also put them at risk of being injured or killed by prescribed fires.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Perry, Roger W. 
Research Location : Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas
Research Station : Southern Research Station (SRS)
Year : 2015
Highlight ID : 929

Summary

Some bat species, including eastern red bats, roost for short periods beneath leaf litter on the forest floor during winter in the southeastern United States, a region subjected to frequent fire. The variability of burns and the effects of litter and duff moisture on forest-floor temperatures during winter burning could influence potential survival for bats beneath the leaf litter if they are unable to escape oncoming flames. Forest Service scientists measured temperatures below leaf litter in south-slope plots during controlled burns in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas to determine the probability of survival. Maximum temperature recorded under leaf litter averaged 292 degrees Celsius (558 degrees Fahrenheit). Only 5 percent of the plots experienced temperatures that were deemed survivable (less than 60 degrees Celsius or less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit) during burns on warmer winter days. Temperatures below the leaf litter measured just before the arrival of fire (about 19.6 degrees Celsius or 67.28 degrees Fahrenheit) suggested that if bats were roosting in plots they would have been in shallow torpor, which would have enabled faster escape from approaching flames. Burning during the warmer periods of winter, greater or equal to 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit) and during afternoons could potentially improve survival by bats roosting under leaf litter by reducing arousal and escape times.

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