HOW DO YOU CATCH A BAT?

by Whit Gibbons

August 27, 2017

Awhile back my grandson Parker asked, “Grandpa, how do you catch a bat?”

I considered saying, “I don’t.” Instead, I said, “I know someone who studies bats. Let’s have her show us.”

That someone is Joy O’Keefe, director of the Center for Bat Research, Outreach and Conservation at Indiana State University. She recently demonstrated one technique for catching a bat, and it’s not easy.

Joy’s interest was in recording which bats were present and examining them as part of her research. One method of bat inventory is the mist net. Imagine a volleyball net made of thread so thin that a bat’s echolocation signals do not bounce back as readily as they do from a solid tree trunk or building. The result – flying bats get tangled in the net. The six nets we set that night ranged from 20 to 40 feet long. Bats can fly at night by using echolocation, which allows them to find insect prey and to avoid physical structures. However, bats have tiny eyes and can see in the daytime. They are occasionally active during the day.

The researcher must get to the net and capture the bat before it chews its way free. Thus, every 10 minutes beginning at dusk, we took turns checking mist nets to see if a bat had been caught. Some nets were in the woods, but two were strung across our stream.

While Parker, Joy and her husband, Mark Vukovich, waded waist-deep in cold water to set and check the mist nets, I kept careful watch from the bridge over the stream. Somebody had to stay dry to take notes.

Of the more than 45 kinds of bats found in the United States, the eastern red bat and the evening bat are among those present in the Southeast. We caught several of each kind that night and saw how terrifying a bat can look up close. Parker’s dad wondered if perhaps George Lucas got ideas for some of his creepy "Star Wars" characters from a personal encounter with a bat.

Being of an earlier generation, I tried to recall if Bela Lugosi had such vicious-looking fangs in the movie “Dracula," but Joy knows how to handle a bat, taking measurements of each one’s weight and wing spread and identifying its sex.

There is more to bats than just a formidable beastlike face with a mouthful of sharp teeth. Each time Joy released one, we watched as it disappeared into the surrounding night and marveled at one of the most graceful flying creatures imaginable.

Eastern red bats are beautiful. Males have a soft, furry, reddish-orange coat. Females are more yellowish. Red bats have a broad tail and big wings that they use like a catcher’s mitt to capture moths and beetles in flight. Evening bats are darker and kind of scary looking, and they smell like burnt wood. But they too are awesome in flight.

Joy also came prepared with a technological device used in bat research – an Anabat bat detector. When turned on, the device registers the ultrasonic echolocation sounds of bats in the vicinity. The Anabat revealed that three more species were flying around that night, although we did not catch any of them. That's something to look for in the mist nets another time when Joy pays a visit to our land.

Conservation biologists are concerned about a type of fungus that can grow on the exposed skin of bats and cause death during hibernation. It is known as white-nose syndrome, or WNS.

The WNS origin is unknown, but it has been found on bats in Europe and Asia. Part of Joy’s research is to determine if bats in our region are infected. Because WNS is contagious among bats, she takes great care to wear a new set of gloves for each bat, washes the nets after use and doesn’t let observers touch them. That part was fine with me.

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