Feature

It was a dark and spooky night for bats, and a long night for researchers

Jane Hodgins
Northern Research Station
October 31st, 2019 at 9:32AM
A picture of a student's hands, with gloves on, evaluating a bat’s health.
A student at one of the stations evaluating the bat’s health. She is extending a wing to see if it has holes that might suggest it has experienced WNS. (Photo credit: Jane Hodgins.)

Images of bats proverbially circling around us in the days leading up to International Bat Week and, of course, Halloween appear nearly non-stop in the media—not mention a people’s doorsteps and storefronts. However, in many parts of the country, including the Northeast and Midwest, many bats have retreated to caves, trees and barns to hibernate.

To see them in action, we have to flip the calendar back a few months.

Take for example a sultry evening in June at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, near Columbia, Missouri. Bats glided as smoothly and silently as a paper airplanes from beneath the Rock Bridge, an aptly named formation spanning a small stream. They were hunting insects, but many of them instead found a mist net, set by a small troupe of graduate students and researchers led by Sybill Amelon of the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station.

It would be a long night for all of them.

Amelon and her team had set up mist nets before the sun went down. Bats started flying at dusk, and the researchers spent the next several hours weighing bats and collecting blood samples and, if they were lucky, fecal samples.

Before releasing bats, researchers photographed their wings so the health of individual bats could be tracked if recaptured in the future, a technique that Amelon helped develop. The research project was also open for visitors attending a bat program offered by Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, which has been a longtime partner in Amelon’s research.

A picture of graduate students and researchers setting up mist nets to capture bats at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, near Columbia, Missouri.
Graduate students and researches set up mist nets to capture bats at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, near Columbia, Missouri. (Photo credit Jane Hodgins.)

Roxie Campbell, a park naturalist at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, met with visitors for a brief presentation before guiding them down the dark boardwalk paralleling a stream to watch research in action. The partnership with Rock Bridge has given Amelon opportunities to gather data, and the ongoing relationship has given the park insight into a species that is hard to see, say nothing of monitoring.

“Sybill’s research has given us a great deal more knowledge about the bats using Rock Bridge State Park, and I can consult with her whenever we have a question about bats or their habitat,” said Campbell.

Amelon’s work for the past decade centered on white-nose syndrome or WNS and finding a treatment for what is widely believed to be the most catastrophic wildlife disease of the young century. She is now focusing on research aimed at ensuring the survival of the bats that survived the disease.

“Post white-nose syndrome, bats are facing challenges in recovery, and they are doing that in an environment that is changing around them,” Amelon said. “I want to ensure that the world is never without bats, and my part in that includes not just my own research, but passing on techniques and I hope some level of passion to a next generation of scientists.”

A picture of Sybill Amelon who conducts bat research at the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station.
Sybill Amelon conducts bat research at the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. (Forest Service photo.)

As the night faded into morning at Rock Bridge Amelon darted between students monitoring mist nets and students weighing bats, pausing to greet park visitors, which included students from the University of Missouri.

The first bats captured faced one more chore, a photo shoot of an extended wing, creating a record that can be used to identify individual bats if they are captured again. With that done, a gloved researcher held the bat up and opened her hand, and in a moment the bat had swept silently into the night.