UNCG Research

Bat watching

New monitoring program will help bats and humans

Posted on Friday, October 28th, 2016 by Savannah Hutko.
Short-nosed fruit bat, native to southern Asia. Photo by Anton Croos CC BY-SA 4.0 https://goo.gl/whAOKl

Short-nosed fruit bat, native to southern Asia. Photo by Anton Croos CC BY-SA 4.0 https://goo.gl/whAOKl

How many bats does it take to change a light bulb?

Trick question; bats don’t need light bulbs. As nocturnal creatures, they rely on echolocation to “see.”

For the average person, bats are easy to forget. We can’t hear them. Their high-pitched squeaks lie in the ultrasonic range, and they’re mostly active while we’re asleep. If bats were to suddenly leave the biosphere, however, we would have a newfound appreciation for their services.

Bats are the single greatest consumer of nocturnal bugs, such as mosquitoes and moths. Far more effective than any pesticide or electrified zapper, bats are the primary agent in nighttime pest control. They help control bug populations that spread disease and consume crops, preventing plague and famine.

Professor Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell, UNCG Department of Biology

Professor Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell, UNCG Department of Biology

Recently, however, bats have been facing some serious threats, such as new fungal infections that disrupt hibernation and dangerous wind turbines interrupting their migratory paths. Dr. Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell and her colleagues want to help protect bats from these threats. But first they have to shine a light on bat life.

“They’re really hard to study. People haven’t studied bats for as long as people have studied birds, because you can’t see them,” Kalcounis-Rueppell says. “Long-term monitoring allows us to look for population changes. Without that long-term aspect, you don’t know whether a population or a species is doing okay or not.”

That’s where the new North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat) comes in. It’s an initiative in its pilot phase, with government employees, university scientists, and volunteers setting up an infrastructure of ultrasonic sampling sites to monitor bat populations. Across North and South Carolina, microphones are recording bat sounds and storing them to develop a government database of bat stats.

NABat will form a foundation for all future bat research in North America. This database will provide context for declining bat populations and answer a host of other questions too — some that have not yet been conceived. And one of the places it’s starting is here in Greensboro.

Post-doctoral fellow Han Li, UNCG Department of Biology, in the field

Post-doctoral fellow Han Li in the field, UNCG Department of Biology

Dr. Han Li, a post-doctoral fellow working with Kalcounis-Rueppell at UNCG, serves as the coordinator for the North Carolina division of the North American Bat Monitoring Program. He collects and analyzes, with help from biologists across North Carolina, data from 56 different bat monitoring sites from across the state that the federal government has identified as top priority. As the coordinator, he works with all of NABat’s partners and stakeholders in North Carolina.

North and South Carolina provide an ideal location for bat monitoring because our latitude and climate are comfortable for both northern and southern bat species. Our diverse coastal, Piedmont, and mountain biomes allow many different species of bats to make their homes here.

Li’s data help him discover which bat species live in North Carolina, where within the state they live and what their general habitat requirements are. Right now, his lab has several projects that make use of these data. Several years ago, Dr. Kalcounis-Rueppell found that some species of bats living in and around Greensboro differed in terms of their preference for feeding around particular types of water in the Buffalo Creek watershed. Li and Kalcounis-Rueppell are now using NABat data to test if Greensboro’s pattern holds across the state of North Carolina.

Other projects include analyzing how cities and urban landscapes affect bat behavior and comparing different sampling methods to help other researchers choose the most efficient methods for their projects.

This is the second year of the Carolinas’ NABat pilot program, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission will take over the project in the future. As an expert in North Carolina bats and the NABat, Dr. Li is currently training state biologists in order to ease that transition, although he hopes to continue to be involved with the project long-term.

So, how many bats does it take to change a lightbulb? We don’t know, but with some help from Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell, Han Li, and NABat, we’ll have a goldmine of data to help figure it out.

Written by Ben Tasho and Olivia Wood.

ben_headshotAt the time of his contribution, co-author Ben Tasho was a Media and Communication Intern with the UNCG Office of Research and Economic Development. In his position, he researched and wrote articles about the on and off campus impacts of UNCG research. Ben’s interest in writing, media, and education led him to his current position.


Olivia1_SmallAt the time of her contribution, co-author Olivia Wood was a media and communication intern with the Office of Research and Economic Development. Olivia is a senior at UNCG double majoring in English and cultural anthropology with a minor in classical studies. She has a deep love for Virginia Woolf and a passion for research toward social justice.