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How do you catch thousands of bats?

November 19, 2012

How do you catch thousands of bats?

Bat researcher Veronika Cottontail cuts the outboard motor and glides into a small cove alongside Harvard Trail on Panama's Barro Colorado Island

Bat researcher Veronika Cottontail cuts the outboard motor and glides into a small cove alongside Harvard Trail on Panama's Barro Colorado Island. One of the Ph.D. candidate's field assistants, Veronika Zeus, misses a step and plunges up to her waist. She just shrugs it off. By the time Cottontail and team hike a half-kilometer into the jungle– laden with heavy backpacks and dragging long PVC tubes – and race against sunset to raise six mist nets, the team is so drenched in sweat they look as if they have all fallen in water.

“Ninety-four percent humidity,” notes Cottontail, the temperature a steamy 24.5 degrees Celsius. Assistant Anna Westermeier arranges vials for blood samples on a folding table beneath a blue tarp while Zeus finally empties the water from her gumboots. Headlamps, peanut butter sandwiches and bug repellant at the ready, Cottontail and her crew are ready to catch and release bats – until dawn, if necessary. “Our next bat will be number 2,237 of this study,” she says.

A medical doctor who investigates infectious diseases, Cottontail's career path was diverted by Elisabeth Kalko, whose contagious enthusiasm for all things bat inspired a generation of young scientists. Kalko, a STRI scientist who passed away suddenly last year, inspired so many students in her native Germany that undergrads have to compete for unpaid spots on bat crews. “I was very lucky,” said Westermeier, a volunteer from Munich. “It's a lot of work but I really love it.”

For the next four hours, Zeus and Westermeier untangle netted bats, put them in cotton bags and dutifully bring them back to camp. Cottontail deftly takes blood samples, checks for parasites, tags the bats and records various measurements and releases them. She prioritizes lactating females – their offspring often fly around the site nervously until mothers are released.

This night was a slow one – only 30 bats from five species were netted. Some nights

Cottontail's crew net more than twice as many, and record data hours after the mist nets close at midnight.

After getting lost on the trail back to the boat and getting caught in a brief downpour, the soaking wet bat team returns to STRI's BCI station as the sky clears and a near-full moon illuminates Gatun Lake. It's 1 a.m. but their workday, already nine hours long, is only beginning. They grab a quick bite to eat and head to the laboratory to process data. The mist nets, meanwhile, will need hours of repair after a few massive bats tore holes right through them. “At least we got back early,” says Zeus.

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