This week guest blogger and my dear friend Lindsey Wight shares her experiences as a field biologist studying bats and all the species she has meet along the way. Enjoy!
“And the bats were out too: ragged patches of silent blackness against the deep night-purple star-bespattered sky.” — Neil Gaiman _________________________________________________________________________
For the last eight summers, I have spent my nights in pursuit of bats. First, I pursued them in search of answers to the questions I posed for my master’s thesis; then I pursued them to answer questions posed by the clients who hired my consulting company. These have been, at times, some of the most exhausting, frustrating, low-reward nights of my life as a biologist; and they have been some of the most over-the-moon, jumping-up-and-down, lighting-up-the-night-with-joy nights, as well.
As any field biologist can tell you, sometimes you just strike out. Maybe it’s the weather, or the location, or the fact that you’ve been going for too many hours without sleep; sometimes you just don’t find what you’re looking for. Or you do, but you’re too numbed (exhausted, stressed, homesick) to enjoy it. These are not the times we biologists live for – and, luckily, these are not the memories that stick.
The ones that stick with you are the moments when you capture 12 of your target species in one night (when you’re often lucky to catch 12 in an entire season); or the moments when you catch a new-to-you species; or the moments when you catch a new-to-someone-you’re-with species; or the moments when you have a visitor who expressed interest, so you invited them out (because you always jump on the chance to get someone else hung up on your passion) and you succeed: and then get to show them the cool part – why you do this night after night.
And other moments stick, too: those when you’re having a slow night, and a friend shows up with treats to help pass the time; or when you realize that the people you’re working with are the FUNNIEST people you’ve ever met (it doesn’t matter what role sleep-deprivation plays in this); or when you decide to order pizza to a random side-of-the-road location (literally: we gave him the mileage of where to stop, and were standing there waiting for him with our money) and the delivery guy is DELIGHTED to be a part of this; or when you get to show someone their first up-close bat, or a flying squirrel, or a stick insect, and they are as into it as you are. There are so many good things about being a field biologist.
I apologize for rambling, but I’m feeling nostalgic, because for the first time in eight years, I won’t be spending my summer with bats and the people who love them.
So how did I get into bats? I have a memory of a tv show in a hotel room, somewhere between Vermont and Ohio. Each summer, we would pile into the station wagon, and drive to my grandparents’ house. A treat was always stopping at a hotel on the way, where we got to have real tv (we only got ABC, CBS, and PBS at my home). On one of these journeys, I saw a program about flying foxes – big fruit-eating bats native to tropical and subtropical Asia, Australia, East Africa, and the Indiana and Pacific oceans; I thought they were just about the cutest things.
Many years later, I decided to do a semester abroad in Australia, and somehow stars aligned and I got to spend a month of independent research living at a rehabilitation facility for grey-headed flying foxes. Dream. Come. True.
That experience eventually led to a position working with insect-eating bats in South Carolina, where I learned how to find, handle, measure, track, and adore these smaller bats. And that position led, in a somewhat round-about fashion, to my last eight summers.
All of which now leads me to subjecting you, dear reader, to an overview of some of my favorite creatures of the northeastern US.
The northeastern US is home to nine species of bats; all are insectivorous, playing an important role in controlling insect pests. The bats that your average human most commonly encounters are little brown bats and big brown bats, which often spend their summers in buildings, though they typically winter in caves and mines. Four other species will hibernate in caves and mines in winter, though they will generally choose trees for summer roosts, rather than buildings. These species are: tricolored bats, northern long-eared bats, Indiana bats, and small-footed bats. The three remaining northeastern bat species will also spend their summers roosting in and around trees, but they migrate south for the winter, rather than hibernating in caves: eastern red bats, hoary bats, and silver-haired bats. I have been fortunate to have encountered each of these species during my work with bats, and find them all delightful.
Little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) were once the most common bat species in the northeastern US, but their populations have been hugely impacted by white-nose syndrome (more on this below). Typically 3-4” from nose to tail, with a wingspan of 8-10”.
Big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) commonly roost in barns and attics, and are probably the species most often seen around our homes. Typically 4-5” from nose to tail, with a wingspan of 11-13”.
Tricolored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) are one of the smallest bats in the northeastern US. Typically around 3” from nose to tail, with a wingspan of up to 8-10”, and distinct red/orange forearms that contrast with black wing membranes.
Northern long-eared bats (Myotis septentrionalis) are very similar in size and appearance to the little brown bat, but with distinctly longer ears. This species is federally threatened.
Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) are also extremely similar to little brown bats, but typically have a distinct bump (the keel) on a cartilage spur (the calcar) near their ankle. This species is federally endangered.
Eastern small-footed bats (Myotis leibii) are another of the smallest bats, and are rarely encountered. Typically 2.5-3.5” from nose to tail, with a wingspan of 8-10”, these bats have distinctly small feet and an obvious black face mask.
Eastern red bats (Lasiurus borealis) are distinctly red in color with shorter, rounded ears and, unlike most other bat species, their fur extends to cover their tail membrane. Typically 3.5-4.5” from nose to tail, with a wingspan of up to 13”.
Hoary bats (Lasiurus cinerus) are the largest bats found in the northeastern US, averaging 5-6” from nose to tail, with a wingspan of up to 16”. Their brown fur is tipped with white, giving it the appearance of hoar-frost, from which this species draws its name. The tail-membrane is also furred, much like that of red bats.
Silver-haired bats (Lasionycteris noctivagans) have very dark brown or black fur, tipped with white, which gives this bat its name. Typically 3-5” from nose to tail, with a wingspan of 10-12”.
Many of these species have been impacted by white-nose syndrome (WNS), which has caused dramatic declines in hibernating bat populations in the northeast since 2006. Linked to a cold-loving fungus, the syndrome gets its name from fuzzy growth that displays on noses, ears, and wings of hibernating bats. Of the nine species listed above, little brown bats, big brown bats, tricolored bats, northern long-eared bats, Indiana bats, and eastern small-footed bats have all been impacted by the fungus. The other three northeastern US species do not hibernate in caves, and, thankfully, no WNS has been detected in them. WNS has been found in 26 states and 5 Canadian provinces, and over 6 million bats are estimated to have died from it. Since most bat species have only 1 pup per year, recovery from the devastating impacts of WNS will be slow.
I encourage everyone to learn what they can do in their area to help bats: reach out to state and federal wildlife agencies for volunteer monitoring efforts, erect a bat box to provide a summer roost, and encourage others to learn more about bats too. A simple tv program led me on a wonderful, lifelong journey. I will miss surveying for bats this summer, but I know that I will enjoy seeing them use my bat box, and talking to others about these amazing creatures.