22 Jun Tiny Teeth, Will Bite – the Bats of San Juan Island
Hello loyal readers,
Welcome to my third blog post. My first two were quite dry, so I’m attempting a new tone: something light-hearted and relatable. I’ll be saying “chillax” a lot. Just kidding.
This week, I’ll be sharing my encounter with an inspiring individual. Over the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several remarkable scientists, which made it challenging to narrow down my choice. In the end, I opted for a group of scientists who were conducting bat surveys on San Juan Island. They belong to the Inventory and Monitoring group for the North Coast and Cascades Network, based in Mt. Rainier. It is a group that I didn’t know existing before this internship and now I am obsessed. You get to travel to different national parks for your job? You get to study all different types of cool species like bats and foxes? Sign me up! …But honestly if you know anyone, let me know.
They are currently checking the bat populations in their network for White-nose bat syndrome. The syndrome is a devastating fungal disease that affects hibernating bat species in North America. The syndrome is characterized by the growth of white fungus on the muzzle, wings, and other body parts of infected bats. The fungus thrives in cold and humid hibernation sites, leading to physiological disruptions in infected bats, including abnormal behavior and depletion of vital fat reserves necessary for winter survival. Thankfully the disease has yet to show up on San Juan Island.
After their work on San Juan Island, they planned to head to a remote road in Canada for more bat surveys. However, they needed to stop by headquarters to pick up their passports. Does it get cooler than that? Answer: No.
In the evening, I spent a couple of hours with the team, assisting them with bat counts and data recording. We sat on lawn chairs and tree stumps, patiently waiting for the sun to set and the first bat to appear. At English Camp, there’s a clearing in the forest with three large wooden boxes mounted on a pole. These boxes serve as a home to approximately 550 female bats and are known as a nursing colony. The species, Myotis yumanensis, emerges at dusk and dawn to hunt for flying insects like moths, froghoppers, leafhoppers, June beetles, ground beetles, midges, and mosquitoes. They usually emerge in groups of 2-5 individuals. My theory is the groups are made up of besties. They get ready in their bat enclosure together for a night on the town and gossip about where the juiciest mosquitos could be found. I have yet to find data to support my theory, but I will keep you updated.
Armed with clicker counters, each of us clicked in unison as the bats started to emerge regularly. It was a monotonous symphony that lasted about an hour. We didn’t receive a standing ovation, but one person did get bat poop on their face. We stopped counting once the first bat returned to the box, hopefully satisfied with a full belly and experiencing a bat version of a food coma.
In addition to counting, the group also attached a plastic chute and a pillowcase to the exit of the northernmost box. Any bat attempting to fly out would unintentionally collide with the plastic and awkwardly flop into the pillowcase below, sometimes accompanied by a disgruntled squeak. I couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed for them. I imagined they might be thinking, “Did I take a wrong turn? I followed this route yesterday… probably construction.”
While waiting for the pillowcase to fill up, the group engaged in casual conversations about other research projects. In one particular bat research project, someone spent two days driving around, chasing the beeping sound of their phone charger because it uncannily resembled their bat tracking signal.
The night concluded with measuring and swabbing the bats collected in the pillowcase. We were checking to see if the population is healthy and if there are any traces of white nose bat syndrome. They turned out smaller than I had expected, almost the size of a chicken egg, and they fiercely bit at anything that came near their mouth. I admired their determination; it somehow made them even more adorable. After gathering our data, we released them into the night to rejoin their fellow bats. I began the night somewhat wary of bats, but ended up hoping I would encounter one again in the near future. Fingers crossed.