This story was written by Elaine Barr in GRAD 5144, Communicating Science, as a response to an assignment to spend half an hour writing a story about her research. Elaine is a master’s student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and her work focuses on documenting remnant bat populations after devastating declines caused by white-nose syndrome.
My first time capturing, radio tagging, and tracking a threatened northern long-eared bat happened in the middle of nowhere, West Virginia.
My advisor Dr. Mark Ford and I were mist-netting at night for bats at a state wildlife management area in the northwest corner of the state, an area with no cell reception, tiny towns, and a lot of fracking equipment. However, this little wildlife area was supposedly a hotspot for rare bats.
I was in the middle of the first summer field season for my master’s research and had yet to catch any northern long-eared bats in Virginia or eastern West Virginia. I wanted to believe Mark when he said this was “the spot,” but I was a little skeptical.
After checking the nets every 15 minutes for over two hours, we had caught only a handful of common eastern red bats. Then, I spotted something different in our net stretched across a trail entrance.
“Mark!” I shouted, “I don’t think this one is a red bat!” With a bit of a groan, he came to help untangle the potentially new species.
It was not a red bat! It was the species we had driven 8 hours to find. Of course, like all rare treasures, it was not easy to get our hands on her. The little bat was very tangled up in the net. She had used her strong teeth to bite a hole in the net, stick her head through, and get herself seriously stuck. She only weighed a bit over 5 grams, like a nickel and a dime together, so we had to be very careful not to injure the little bat as we worked her free. After what felt like hours, but was probably 10 minutes, we got her back to our work-up station, the tailgate of our truck.
While Mark measured the weight and length and determined the sex of our exciting find, I got a tiny radio transmitter ready to glue on her back. To avoid over-burdening the tiny bat, we had to use a transmitter less than 5percent of her weight. That meant using a 0.26 gram radio tag, about a quarter the weight of a small paperclip.
Before we used surgical glue to stick the tag on her back, Mark wanted to show me something.
“Feel her abdomen, and tell me what you think,” he said. I gently pressed my fingers across her belly and noticed that it was swollen.
“Is she pregnant?” I asked.
Indeed, she was not only a rare species, she was pregnant, and hopefully soon to add another individual to the small and declining population of her species. We released her quickly, with her new tracking device attached, so she could keep feeding on insects.
The next day, Mark and I fired up our antennas and radio receivers to try and track down the bat. We wanted to find the tree she spent the day roosting in so we could understand the type of trees pregnant northern long-eared bats use. After a long day of hiking up and down steep slopes, we found her! She was right where we thought she might be, in the crack of a small dead tree on a sunny slope. We now had more evidence to support the need to preserve standing dead trees, and a place to start looking for more of these rare bats.
(Photos courtesy of Elaine Barr)