Bringing bat science to life: inspiring- and being inspired by- a budding biologist
Note: the bats in the photos are taxidermied specimens. Never handle a bat.
A few months ago, I was reading my daily news alerts about bats and white-nose syndrome, and I came across a story about a little girl who was in love with bats, and desperate to do something about white-nose syndrome. Miri, a seven year-old at the time, had been a bat lover since she was just a few years old, and had recently learned about WNS and research that the Boston University bat lab was doing to try to combat the disease. Miri wrote to Santa Claus last year, asking for his help in saving the bats, and decided that she wants to be a bat biologist when she grows up.
My heart melted- a mini-me! Although my interest in bats didn't really get going until I was a teenager, I felt like we might have a real window of opportunity to connect Miri to the thing she loved, and really inspire her to stay interested in science and bats. I immedately contacted my friend Nate Fuller in the BU bat lab and said "we have to get Miri out to see some bats and keep her excited about this!"
Nate and I brainstormed. "Seeing" bats is a lot more difficult than it might sound. Particularly the little native hibernating species of bats we have here in the eastern United States, and the one that are affected by WNS. Not only are they tiny, they come out at night, and this time of year, most of the bats have already made their way to caves and mines to hibernate. I contacted Zoo New England to see if they might be able to help us out in getting Miri a little bit more personal experience with live bats.
We arranged to meet at the Franklin Park Zoo before opening, and the Assistant Curator of the Tropical Forest, Jeannine Jackle, met us and talk to us about the Ruwenzori long-haired fruit bats that live there. We arrived in time to see the keepers prepping animal enclosures for the day, putting out food, changing water, and cleaning enclosures. We wound our way through the tropical forest to the fruit bat enclosure, and Jeannine had set up a table with all the ingredients to make one of the bats' favorite meals, fruit kabobs. Miri and the other kids made kabobs from very ripe bananas, canteloupe, apples, and grapes. Jeannine then went into the bat enclosure and hung the kabobs while the kids watched, waiting for the bats to start feeding. Shy at first (probably because of the light and high pitched shrieks any time a bat got anywhere near the fruit), it took the fruit bats a few minutes before they started flying around in the enclosure, doing "fly-bys" to grab a bite of fruit, and taking turns scrabbling for rights to a hold on the apple juice dispenser.
After the squealing calmed down a little, and the kids settled in to watching the bats, the Boston Globe journalist, Gal, started asking Miri questions about her interest in white-nose syndrome and bats. Her eyes never leaving the 1/3 pound bats in the enclosure, Miri rattled off an impressive list of bat facts. And when Gal started asking about white-nose syndrome, I was thoroughly impressed with the eight year-old's grasp on the disease, and how it affects hibernating bats. She pretty much captured it in one fell swoop: that it affects bats while they are hibernating; that the fungus grows on their wings, tails, and faces; that it makes holes in their wings; and that it makes them wake up in the winter when there is no food or water, they come out of their cave, and they starve to death.
Well, Miri has most of the story right, but the science and work that goes on behind the scenes to understand bats and the disease is really complex. There is an amazing network of scientists, biologists, and managers working towards finding ways to interrupt the disease cycle and conserving bat species. We work not only in the field, but also in labs and offices, with microscopes, computers and high-tech equipment to learn as much as we can about bats and this deadly disease. So, from the Zoo, we set off to the Boston University Bat Lab to learn about some of the research Nate and his colleages are doing to track bats and learn more about how WNS affects these amazing flying mammals.
The thermal imaging camera didn't inspire much in the way of squealing when Nate first pulled it out of the Pelican case and plugged it in to warm up. He talked about lugging the heavy cases and 70 pound computers out in the field to set them up to "watch" bats at night. Miri and John were skeptical. But when Nate showed a cool color-coded video of huge numbers of bats flying out of Frio Cave, then let Miri and John dance around in front of the camera, sticking out their tongues and making red heat signature handprints on their cooler body parts, the fun really began. Those of us who work in the field know it isn't always fun and games. Lugging hundreds of pounds of gear to a field site is tough work, but, admittedly, having cool high-tech equipment that lets you "see" in the dark sure makes it a lot more exciting.
Our final stop for the day took us to the Metcalf Center for Science and Engineering at Boston University. Nate brought out trays of bat specimens for Miri and John to check out. It was the first time Miri got to touch bat fur. I asked her what she thought it would feel like- remembering my first time touching a bat. "Soft or wirey?" I said. "Soft, " Miri said, "Really, really soft." She is right.
We admired the different specimens' sizes and fur color. I was impressed with Miri's ability to connect some of the amazing adaptations and bat physiology- like tail membranes vs. no tail membranes, feet facing "backwards", giant ears vs. small ears- with different bat behaviors and feeding strategies. She's already ahead of the curve when it comes to being a bat biologist when she grows up!
The emergence of white-nose syndrome and its affects on North American hibernating bat populations has increased interest in bat research, and has certainly made clear that we need a better understanding of bat ecology and bat populations. As scientists expect the disease to continue to spread, it is even more imperative that we look toward the future and continue to foster and interest in young people to continue to learn about our North American bat species, and to be invested in their conservation.
"What's your favorite bat?" I asked Miri when I first met her and shook her hand.
"The little brown bat." she answered without hesitating.
I'm glad to hear that, as one of the species that's been most affected by white-nose syndrome. Those little guys will certainly be lucky to have such a smart, passionate young woman working toward their continued existence.
Read the Boston Globe article about our visit with Miri.