Cadet Bat Research to Support Preservation
Three cadets worked this summer to preserve one of the smallest mammals in the world, the eastern small-footed bat. The work took them out into the field at Sherando Lake and other sites, where they crossed the paths of black bears, flying squirrels, and rattlesnakes.
The cadets, Molly Western ’14, Zackary Hann ’13, and Micah Hosler ’14, each had a separate research focus, but they worked as a team to gather data and collect samples.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying the bats in response to a petition for classifying them as endangered. If that happens, a series of habitat protections and conservation efforts will be implemented.
“The problem is we don’t know much about these bats. No one has done work on their ecology, so they can’t protect them if they don’t know what makes them tick,” said Maj. Paul Moosman ’98, assistant professor of biology. “So that’s what Molly Western’s project is all about. She’s studying where they’re roosting as well as the differences in the biology between males and females. She’s filling in this picture about what they’re doing and what their habitat needs are.”
Hosler’s research is filling in another aspect of bat ecology. He’s using stable isotope analysis of bat fur to determine the diets of the eastern small-footed bat and two other species.
“This is my passion. I care about the environment, and I enjoy learning about it,” said Hosler. “I love going out into the field and working alongside my team.”
Hann is studying the eastern red bat, another species about which little is known.
The team of cadets ventured out at night to catch bats in nets set up in areas where bats hunt for insects, such as over streams or across trails.
“We go out just before dark, and that gives us about half an hour of sunlight to set up the nets,” said Western. “When we do catch a bat, we have to be really careful about not breaking their wings because they’re so fragile.”
Eastern small-footed bats are about the weight of a nickel and about the size of a person’s thumb; eastern red bats are only twice that size.
Once the bats were netted, the cadets collected fur samples and attached radio transmitters to relay information on the bat’s body temperature and location. The team then went out in daylight to locate the sleeping bats and collect more data.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Western. “There are thousands of rocks, and you’re looking for one tiny little bat in a tiny little crevice.”
Once they found the bats’ roosts they measured the location, size, and temperature of the roosts in order to figure out what kind of habitat the bats require, including the roosting requirements of mother bats, which congregate into maternity roosts to conserve energy.
All this information will be built into the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ dataset on the species, which will contribute to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision on whether or not to list the bats as endangered.
“We’re spread fairly thin, so it’s really a good fit for us to work with people like Paul and his students,” said Rick Reynolds, VDGIF wildlife biologist. “It always ends up being a personnel numbers game to get enough people out there to study these populations.”
Although fur samples were collected during this summer’s research, Hosler’s lab analysis of bat fur focused on a larger sample of fur from New Hampshire.
“As long as their hair is growing, you can see what the bats are eating,” said Hosler. “Bats control insect populations, so by studying what they’re eating we can get support behind preserving these species.”
This line of research is likely to provide exciting opportunities for years to come, since many more local samples must to be collected in order to draw definite conclusions.
“The work is pretty exciting; they’ve been seeing snakes and bears,” said Moosman. “It’s eye opening. A lot of cadets have a love of nature begin with, but a lot of them don’t have an idea of how exciting this aspect of biology is, with all the field work and conservation opportunities.”
That excitement was echoed by all the cadets studying bats in the field.
“I really enjoy being out in the field rather than in a lab or office,” said Western. “I love hiking, and I love animals, so I couldn’t have wound up in a better spot.”
–John Robertson IV