Guest blog: Student Ashley Saulsberry learns about bats, white-nose syndrome during summer internship

Student Ashley Saulsberry at Twentymile in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In late 2010, I discovered this blog and began to correspond with Ann, with the USFWS, about WNS and bats, and during early 2011 she connected me with Dr. Joy O’Keefe, with Indiana State University, so we could arrange an internship for me during the summer. This June, I traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to observe and assist with Dr. O’Keefe’s research on the effects of prescribed fire on roosting habitat of the Indiana bat. It all seemed a bit daunting at first: learning how to mistnet to catch bats, perform radio telemetry to track bats, and properly decontaminate gear to protect the bats, all with new people, but my experience proved to be very enjoyable and rewarding.

Mistnetting quickly became my favorite part of the research because of the proximity to bats it entails. I usually input data on captured bats during mistnetting excursions, so I saw every bat caught, from wriggling big brown bats to the beautiful red bats. All mistnetting excursions were different; some transformed the data input table into a hub of mad commotion and forced my pencil to fly all across the data input sheet while others allowed time for some relaxation in the night air. The capture of an Indiana bat, the study’s target bat species, always resulted in rejoicing and a flurry of activity to note the characteristics of the captured bat and attach a radio transmitter with a unique frequency to her. Later, usually the next day, a receiver and antenna would be used to pick up signals from the bat’s transmitter and thus track the bat and find her daytime roost. Tracking bats could become hard, demanding work with hiking through brush up and around ridges, but finally finding the elusive bats and discovering their roosts made all the briar scratches and bruises worth it. Discovered roost trees would be flagged and photographed and their locations noted. During the evening, the roost trees would be visited and watched in order to count the number of bats emerging from and living in the roost tree. I helped with a few emergence counts for one roost tree found in the Nantahala National Forest, and I really began to enjoy lying on the ground in the cool evening, watching the Indiana bats come out for their nighttime feeding, and just listening to the Fowler’s toads and whip-poor-wills.

Researcher holds a big brown bat. Photo credit: Ashley Saulsberry

My internship and the people I had the pleasure and privilege of working with taught me much about North American bats, research methods used to study them, the demands and uncertainties of field work, and how to orient oneself in the wilderness. My internship increased my appreciation not only for bats, but for many types of wildlife and the Smoky Mountains in general. I came home from the Smokies proud to have helped with a study concerning bats and with implications for conserving the endangered Indiana bat and determined to continue learning about and helping bats and other wildlife. I am very grateful to Ann for helping me to organize this internship and to Dr. O’Keefe, her graduate student, and her three technicians for being so willing to have me and for teaching me so much and answering all my questions.