Researcher studies Lowcountry habitats of declining bat species
The bat lab is not so bad a place for the bats. Live oaks drape over the cordgrass out to the Ashley River. A great blue heron hunts the marsh with wood ducks and ducklings. The scientist doesn’t do any more than listen.
-- Only mammal capable of flying.
-- Can see, but also use a highly developed sonar echolocation.
-- Can eat some 3,000 mosquitoes per night.
-- Nearly 1,000 species worldwide; bats make up almost one-fourth of known mammal species. At least 12 species are found in South Carolina; a 13th has been documented once.
-- Found everywhere except polar regions and extreme deserts.
-- Species include the blood-sucking vampire bat in South American and the giant flying fox in Indonesia, which has a wingspan of nearly 6 feet.
Sources: Defenders of Wildlife, Florida Bat Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lydia Moore.
The lab, though, isn’t so humane for the human. Lydia Moore, of Johns Island, has come away covered with welts from gnat and mosquito bites. She’s seen copperheads slither out at her feet.
She’s out dusk and dawn at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, among four other sites in the Lowcountry, researching how often and how many bat species use various coastal wetland habitats. The work should tell wildlife biologists a lot more about the abundance and diversity of resident and migrating bats in the various fresh, brackish and saltwater wetlands. That could help wildlife managers better conserve the animals.
Why should you care? Mosquitoes. Bats are voracious mosquito eaters, said to consume their weight in bugs each night.
“They provide a free pesticide service,” Moore said, a service worth some $22.9 billion per year in pesticide savings for farmers. “Think of how that much pesticide would affect the ecosystem and everything downstream of the ecosystem.”
But like a lot of other animal and plant species, bats are thought to be declining — some species critically — because of threats including white nose syndrome fungus, wind turbine blades and habitat loss.
Moore’s research is important because coastal wetlands are important habitat for bats, said Susan Loeb, U.S. Forester Service research ecologist. They provide insects for food along with water the creatures need. But wetlands haven’t been studied much in the eastern United States, where researchers focus on the mountains and caves, because of white nose syndrome.
With a specialty like this, Moore easily could Goth up her part, but the closest she gets is a pair of red maple seed-design earrings. She is direct and focused while setting up the call-recording equipment. She moves with the straight-up grace of the athlete and hiker she is, ties down the gear with simple winds of a veteran camper. This is a woman who previously studied cougar kills in New Mexico.
Still, people can’t help but ask what’s she doing. When she tells them, the second question is always the same — why? Her eyes light up.
“Because bats are awesome,” she said. “They’re the only flying mammal.” She talks about the nearly indistinguishable Seminole and Eastern red bats, the rich feel of the fur on creatures that a lot of people don’t even realize have fur.
Each night Moore is out, she sets up at three locations in one of the sites. The listening devices are literally bat detectors, capable of recording calls and passes. From that she can gauge details such as individual species, where they hunt and how abundant they might be at different times.
Moore’s work is a master’s degree project at Auburn University. It is painstaking. Each of the devices records hundreds of calls per night. Conditions like weather must be factored in. The data must be downloaded and sorted out with computer programs that ideally can identify various species by the signature of their calls.
And bats themselves are tough research subjects. Their madcap flitting makes it impossible to get even a good guesstimate of their numbers.
But Moore is out there night after night, bats skittering past so close that she could reach out to grab one if she were quick enough, tree frogs chirring from the woods, a chorus of marsh hens occasionally clacking.
At those moments, she wouldn’t be anywhere else.
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