Research by Indiana State graduate students in North Carolina and Tennessee aims to save the rarest of bat species.
Imagine a world overrun with insects: Farmers, desperate to salvage their crops, apply more and more pesticides. Food costs increase, and the public is slowly poisoned by the additional chemicals.
This scenario is possible, say researchers, if bats go extinct. These flying mammals gobble as much as their weight in bugs every night, protecting our comfort, health and economy.
Bats are fighting multiple threats these days — white nose syndrome and habitat destruction among them. Luckily, bats also have staunch advocates on their side in the form of Indiana State University researchers who are working to stop the population skid.
“Each winter that goes by, we’re seeing fewer and fewer (bats). Some of these caves are getting wiped out up to 99 percent of the population, and it’s so sad,” said graduate student Vanessa Rojas. “But we’re trying to get as much information as we can about these bats to protect them.”
Rojas and Joey Weber, also a graduate student, worked earlier this year in northeastern Tennessee and the North Carolina mountains trying to learn more about the rarest species. The research is sponsored by the university’s Center for Bat Research, Outreach and Conservation.
“I’m sure farmers are seeing it now; as we have fewer bats, we’re going to have more insects. And a lot of those ones are ones that are affecting our crops,” said Rojas, a doctoral student majoring in biology with a focus on ecology.
Virginia big-eared bats
The Virginia big-eared bat is a federally endangered species that has been found in four states — Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. They were listed as endangered in 1979, and experts didn’t discover their presence — now a mere 400 bats — on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina until the 1980s. And it wasn’t until Weber of Rockville, and his team started tracking them with radio tags and towers that anyone knew where the females gave birth and raised their young.
This use of radio-telemetry tower technology to track the bats’ migration habits is the second-ever application of the technology, said Joy O’Keefe, assistant professor of biology and director of the bat center.
“One thing we’re doing is trying to characterize the (Virginia big-eared bat’s) roost sites that we find, so we can have an idea of what types of caves and other types of roosts the bats use, and we’re identifying foraging areas and characterizing those. It really helps land managers protect the bat in the future,” Weber said. “It’s a pretty big challenge, because they’re cryptic and hide in caves in really rugged areas, but what we’re learning here should help us know more about what they do and some of their needs.”
Indiana State became involved in the research project when O’Keefe was approached by colleagues in North Carolina. O’Keefe said she immediately knew Weber was the researcher for the job.
“A lot of people could have bungled that study and not found much at all, but Joey went in there … and found out things people had been wondering about those bats for 20 or 30 years,” O’Keefe said.
Once a roost is located, Weber and his team hike and climb all over the area’s unforgiving terrain to find and examine the cave. They take temperature and air-flow readings, trying to determine if a particular microclimate is preferred by the species.
Researchers must also be careful to not cause harm to the animals they’re trying to protect. When white nose syndrome first surfaced, scientists quickly discovered that well-meaning spelunkers were spreading the fungus from cave to cave. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has closed infected caves to tourists, but researchers still must go in them — and it’s not always known which caves are infected.
Equipment decontamination, therefore, is an important practice, and standards for this are in flux. Indiana State is known for its strictest adherence. At first, researchers soaked everything in Lysol; now, they’re moving to a boiling method, O’Keefe said.
When O’Keefe and Rojas posted on social media a picture of themselves sitting in the 100-gallon pots they used to boil equipment and clothing, a colleague quipped, “I knew you were strict about decon, but you don’t have to boil yourself!”
In addition to tracking the bats, researchers count them at night, as they leave their daytime roost in search of dinner. The counts take place about once a week. Because Virginia big-eared bats are susceptible to disturbance, the team sits in complete silence and conducts the count assisted by infrared lights and night-vision goggles.
The Virginia big-eared bats don’t exit in a whoosh of traffic; it’s more in ones, twos and threes over the timespan of about one-and-a-half hours. When 10 minutes has passed since the last bat was spotted, the count is complete.
On a chilly evening in June, researchers made their way to Roost Seven, a cave where as many as 300 Virginia big-eared bat mothers were roosting. The team’s vehicles wound along the mountain road’s 90-degree (or more) curves and turns, and along the way, they paused for a family of skunks to cross the road. A few more miles down the road, a black bear at the top of a hill stood on its hind legs and watched as Weber and his team passed.
It’s about a quarter-mile hike through the woods to get to the cave. The researchers walked in a single-file line along a path they’d beaten down over months of research. Those following behind had to pay close attention so a recoiling branch didn’t whip them in the face.
As twilight sets in and human vision is disabled by utter and complete blackness, other senses heighten. There’s the dank smell of decaying wood and the sound of water rushing somewhere nearby. An object flaps by: Was that a bat?
Weber, a biology major, has a life-long interest in bats and the outdoors.
“I used to do a little bit of caving when I was younger, so I was always interested in bats,” he said. “Recently with the white nose syndrome, bats have been in a lot of trouble and some of the populations are in trouble, so I know right now it’s really important to study bats and to help them out in any way we can. And I like working outdoors. I get to work in places like this all the time.”
Just across the state line, Rojas and her team spent the summer in the northern district of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee looking for the federally endangered Indiana bat and the soon-to-be protected northern long-eared bat.
Last year, Rojas recorded what is believed to be the call of an Indiana bat — the first time one has been located in this area of the country. Rojas spent the summer trying to catch one, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
“In particular, we’re looking at their maternity roosts. So, when the females are pregnant or and when they’re feeding their young, they’ll all group together, not all of them, but there will be a pretty large amount in one tree — maybe 10 but it can also be 70-80,” Rojas said. “We’re trying to figure out what types of trees they’re using and in what part of the forest they are in.”
In the second year of a multi-year study, the northern long-eared bat was added to the project. It’s one of 12 species in the area — some rarer than others — and Rojas’ team is trying to sleuth out where they roost, how the population is shifting with white nose syndrome and commercial development and how this area of the national forest is different from other parts.
“We caught some northern long-eared bats last year, so we’re going back to some of these sites to capture them,” Rojas said. “It can be a bit of a scavenger hunt in the forest to try to find them.”
This summer, Rojas’ team was joined by Indiana State rising sophomore pre-med major, Alexis Bender of Brazil, Ind. It was Bender’s first experience working with bats and fulfilled her desire to have a summer research experience. Rojas, who hopes to teach at a university someday, was also in her element, sharing with Bender her love for bats, her knowledge of them and research methods to learn more about them.
“I like the idea of giving someone younger that opportunity,” Rojas said. “She may not go into bats and she may not even go into field work, but to have that experience or she’s going to tell her friends about it. Maybe they’re interested, too. So I think that will just kind of help get the word out about bats, and she’ll learn a lot about them.”
Bender’s job was to survey paved roads that have more vehicle traffic for bat signals. Bats often fly along a road or waterway.
“What we end up doing when we catch either of the two (species), we’re going to put a transmitter on them. And then the next day when they’re sleeping in their tree, we’ll go out with a big antenna and radio and will listen for that beat to find them,” Rojas said.
Rojas and her team started the day with a late breakfast and then proceeded with preparations for the evening’s netting operation. The hours-long process involved erecting three pairs of 20-foot fencing poles and a huge hair-net-like net known as a “mist net,” hung on a pulley system, so the team can raise and lower the net as they catch bats … or anything else that becomes entangled.
While they don’t lower the nets until dark, they still catch a whippoorwill from time to time or a flying squirrel. The birds aren’t so much trouble to release, but the squirrels do have sharp teeth.
The nets are draped across roads, and while they net along forestry service roads, they do get an occasional vehicle that drives up. Caution cones in the middle of the road usually slow the vehicle, but the researchers — donned in black rubber boots, coveralls, headlamps and rubber gloves — run to meet the vehicle so it doesn’t drive through the net and destroy the equipment.
Given the fact that it’s a remote area and late at night (sometimes 1 a.m. or 2 a.m.), the ominous-looking researchers have been met with some surprised reactions from unsuspecting motorists. Some cars turn around and speed away without stopping. Rojas and her colleagues joked that some people probably think they’re out there cooking crystal methamphetamine.
“We haven’t had any problems with like sketchy people or anything, but it can be a challenge to coordinate scheduling. I can tell my crew, ‘Hey this is what we’re going to do tonight,’ and then we get rained out and I’m like, ‘Well, ok I really need you guys tomorrow now,’” Rojas said. “Although the field work is the best part (of research), it’s all the stuff that happens in the background to make the field work happen is probably the biggest challenge.”
When they do catch a bat, the research team examines it and takes hair, skin and, if possible, guano samples and examines the animal for signs of white nose syndrome.
Rojas, whose undergraduate degree is in environmental studies, found Indiana State because of its bat center. She met O’Keefe at a conference, and the two kept in touch until Rojas came to Terre Haute.
“I didn’t have one of those moms who were afraid of bats. And so we got one in our house, and it was more fascinating to me — not like, ‘Oh I’m so scared,’” Rojas said.
At the end of a long day or week or after being stuck at the computer processing tedious data, Rojas remembers why her work is so important: She’s helping protect a valuable species. And part of that effort involves educating the public about them.
“I talk to so many people that just know pretty much nothing about bats. They think they’re mice with wings, and you’re like, ‘No they’re not rodents,’ and that’s just like mind-blowing. And then all the other questions come in,” Rojas said. “Working with them you notice their different personalities. You know you’ve got one that’s a little more feisty, and then you’ve got one that’s pretty nice and calm. You see all the different species, and you see how unique they are.”
As dusk fell and feeding time for mosquitos kicked into high gear, a videographer documenting Rojas’ team asked: “Is there anything that keeps bugs away?”
“Bats,” Rojas replied, getting a hearty laugh from the group.