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News

Carthage bat research informs listing of threatened species

  • Caleb Jenks '16 uses a radio telemetry antenna and receiver to track northern long-eared bats in Sandhill State Wildlife Area in summer 2014.
    Courtesy of Professor Deanna Byrnes
June 02, 2015

Ten months. In scientific research, that counts as instant gratification.

Even when there’s a breakthrough, years or even generations usually pass before an experiment benefits the wider world. So, when the northern long-eared bat officially became federally protected as a threatened species in May, three Carthage students got the rare luxury to see the impact of their contribution.

Just last July, Josh Brandt ’16, Laura Krings ’17, and Caleb Jenks ’16 studied those bats in central and western Wisconsin with biology professor Deanna Byrnes. They spent several days collecting data with state researchers to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make an informed ruling.

The northern long-eared bat has been listed as a threatened species, drawing on research by three Carthage students and Professor Deanna Byrnes.Plucking bats from nets, trudging through ditches — all at night, considering these are nocturnal animals — the Carthage trio reveled in dirty work. What the project lacked in glamour, it made up in importance.

“It was exciting to be looking into an animal species immediately before an important conservation decision was made concerning it,” said Caleb, a biology major from Sullivan, Wisconsin.

Under the Endangered Species Act, a threatened species is considered likely to be on the brink of extinction in the near future. Together with public feedback and studies from other regions where the bats live, the data these students gathered will help officials to shape rules protecting the habitat.

A fungal disease called white-nose syndrome has dealt a major blow to the species (Myotis septentrionalis), which never has been exactly plentiful. The syndrome was found in Wisconsin for the first time last year.

“If it hits the northern long-eared bat, it could easily wipe them out,” said Prof. Byrnes, who has studied bats for more than 20 years.

Sure, watching “Batman” from the couch is as close as most people want to get to bats. But the real critters are vital.

“Without bats, insect populations can rise dramatically, with the potential for devastating losses for our crop farmers and foresters,” FWS Service Director Dan Ashe wrote in a press release announcing the new protected species. “The alternative to bats is greater pesticide use, which brings with it another set of ecological concerns.”

Science is impartial, so the Carthage group took no sides in an issue that often pits conservationists against loggers and developers. Still, their estimates meshed with other findings.

“If anything, what we found in conjunction with the DNR was just another drop in a large bucket of evidence in favor of the ruling,” said Caleb, an aspiring high school science teacher and coach who hopes to stay involved with the Wisconsin agency in summers.

Prof. Byrnes and her students were collaborating on a bat monitoring project in southeastern Wisconsin, funded through Carthage’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), when the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources asked for help. They joined DNR researchers in the Sandhill State Wildlife Area and the Black River State Forest.

Caleb said the students trapped bats in nets, checked for white-nose symptoms, and attached radio transmitters to the female long-eared variety to locate the maternity colonies where the largest numbers gather. Then, when the nightly exodus began, the research team counted the flying mammals.

Prof. Byrnes recently returned from a research trip to Belize. It was her fourth time working with fellow bat biologists in the Central American country. The work also has taken her to Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea.

Where many see Halloween horror movie material in these animals, the longtime Carthage faculty member sees beauty — and mystery.

“The more questions you ask,” she said, “the more you realize we don’t know that much about them.”