College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Environmental Science & Policy

Wildlife Ecology students engaged in 2-year research project

Photo Credit: 
Joe Zimmerman

By day, it looks like what it is: a big painter’s pole shooting 20 feet out of the ground with a piece of pool noodle on top and electronic equipment stored in a secured box.   But by night, it works as a data collection spire, recording all nearby sounds and amassing information on the nocturnal creatures that live in the area. Using this tool and equipment like it, university researchers hope to better understand the region’s bats.

[An undergraduate research] team led by Shannon Pederson, a marine-estuarine-environmental sciences doctoral candidate, will start a two-year project this week in which researchers will visit 27 sites in this state, Washington, Virginia and Delaware in an effort to understand how bats adapt to changes in their environment.

“What I’m looking at is if different levels of urbanization are impacting bats,” said Pederson, who is conducting this study for her doctoral thesis. The 27 sites are split equally among urban, moderately urban and rural areas.

Pederson and her team, [comprised mostly of undergraduate ENSP-Wildlife Ecology and Management majors], visited the Woodend Nature Sanctuary in Chevy Chase to practice setting up equipment and collect preliminary data starting in September. Using a microphone attached to a painter’s pole, they are able to record the sounds of bats flying at tree level, Pederson said, and they later use software to identify the species of bats by the calls they make.  In their preliminary work, the researchers found bats they didn’t expect in the area this time of year.

“Even having this kind of data shows there’s a lot going on that we don’t know,” said Kate Weiss, a 2014 university alumna and member of the team.

The group records environmental data around the detector while setting up the equipment. Then they record the pole’s distance to the closest tree, the tree’s height and the amount of forest cover in the area, as these are all factors that determine where the bats go, said Peter Barnhard, a senior environmental science and policy major involved with the project.

The piece of pool noodle serves a specific purpose as well — it sits right beneath the microphone and is covered in sticky paper. After the team collects the audio data, it records what bugs are stuck to the paper to determine what the bats might be eating, said Jane Burgess, a senior environmental science and policy major and team member.

They set up the pole on Sundays and leave it in place for a week to collect data, Pederson said. When the project begins in earnest, the team will set up detectors at three sites every week, alternating among the 27 in a “weekly traveling roadshow,” she said.  By having this variety in data collection, Pederson said she hopes to be able to present an accurate depiction of which bats live in different environments.

A fungal infection known as white nose syndrome has decimated many bat populations and might help researchers study changes in habits among bats.  Pederson said the infection has been especially harmful to smaller bats, whereas larger bats are more robust and better able to survive the fungus, which wakes them up and causes them to expend energy when they should be hibernating.  The fungus thrives in wet, cold caves, Pederson said, so the dry, warm areas of urban development might provide a kind of refuge for bats.

“We want to see if these bats are going to use these environments differently,” Pederson said. “We want to see if there are differences in habitat that have a positive impact on bat activity.”

Julia Geschke, a junior environmental science and policy major, said she and others are involved in the research as part of a final project for their major. Pederson said the study will hopefully characterize environment and behavior as well as provide possible solutions to the fungus problem.

“I want to look at the data and see [if we can] make management recommendations to help species that are sensitive to white nose syndrome,” she said.

Those recommendations depend on the data the team gathers, Pederson said, but if the study is successful over the next two years, it might be able to help provide safer habitats for bats. “The hope is that we can help them before it’s too late,” she said.

NOTE:  This article originally appeared in the Diamondbackonline as, "UMD research team studies how bats react to urban development."  The Diamondback is the University of Maryland's Independent Student Newspaper.  You may reach the author at: jzimmermanndbk@gmail.com

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