Each year, employees of the Oklahoma City Zoo are offered several opportunities to participate in field work and to engage with the Zoo's conservation efforts on the ground level. As a first-time volunteer and full-time desk jockey, I had no clue what to expect when I offered to assist with the spring bat survey at the Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Reserve. But I set out on the drive to Stilwell, Oklahoma with an open mind, eager to learn more about those elusive creatures of the night we call bats!
The first afternoon was spent setting up harp traps and mist nets. A harp trap has a series of parallel strings running up and down attached to a rectangular frame. These were placed at the three openings of the cave system. Unlike normal nets, a harp trap doesn't tangle bats in the webbing. To pass through obstacles, bats turn their bodies perpendicular, but the harp trap disrupts their angle of flight, and the bats drop into a collection chamber below. It takes skillful handling to detangle the bats without injuring it or getting bitten in the process. The crew we accompanied was made up of expert bat biologists and experienced field researchers.
After setup, we waited patiently for dusk to fall, taking in a few serene hours on the wilderness reserve, unscathed by the sounds and lights of the city. When night fell, we could see almost every star in the sky. And that’s when the commotion began!
The first bat fell into the base of the harp net and was retrieved for tagging. Before we knew it, we had two, then three, then four in the collection chamber. In addition to tagging, the team recorded the weight, sex, and wing condition of each bat. The night went on with spurts and lulls of activity. It was around 1 a.m. when we decided to pack it in and head back to the hotel for a debriefing in the lobby. The next night, we did it all again.
Over the course of these adventures, I learned a few things:
Bat are incredible! Bats may have a reputation for being these scary specters of the macabre, but up close, one can appreciate their fragility and the importance of protecting them. Bats help pollinate our plants and reduce the number of insect pests. As their numbers decline, it becomes more apparent how crucial they are to the balance of our ecosystem.
Bats are in trouble. White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease introduced from Europe and is killing North American bats. This cold-loving fungus infects bats during hibernation, when the bats reduce their metabolic rate and lower their body temperature to save energy over winter. Hibernating bats affected by the fungus will wake up, which results in using up fat reserves and then starvation before spring arrives.
Through partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife, this bat survey takes place biannually. While several species are caught and released, the target species has been the northern long-eared bat, a species largely affected by the fungus. In the fall of 2015, 300 northern long-eared bats were found. That number steadily decreased, and this spring, we found none.
There is still hope for bats. As with all endangered and threatened species, the declining number of bats is disheartening. In the face of such grim truths like pollution, climate change, the human population rising and biodiversity plummeting, it is easy to feel hopeless. But it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and make informed choices, to support businesses that make responsible choices.
This experience taught me that our actions can change the future of our world’s disappearing wildlife and wild places for the better.
-Autumn Heigle, marketing events coordinator