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FSU Graduate Student Explores Bat Habitats and Habits
08/07/2000

Most people view bats as rather creepy little creatures of the night that are prone to getting caught in one's hair or occasionally swooping into one's living space.

Kieran O'Malley, a graduate student in Frostburg State University's Applied Ecology and Conservation program, takes a more benign view of these creatures that benefit us humans by feeding on insect pests, dispersing seeds and pollinating plants. He has devoted his graduate research to study the habitats and sounds of these mysterious nocturnal mammals. O'Malley's research could help save a special bat species in West Virginia.

More than 50 percent of American bats are in severe decline or listed as endangered because of habitat destruction or disturbance and the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Loss of bats increases demand for chemical pesticides and jeopardizes ecosystems of other animal and plant species, and adversely affecting human economies. In addition, bats are exceptionally vulnerable to extinction, in part because they are the slowest reproducing mammals on earth for their size. Most produce only one offspring per year.

Efforts to save them include protecting cave roosts and gathering critical information through scientific study.

"Very little is known about bats' activities in the summer after they come out of hibernation," O'Malley says. To solve this mystery, he has spent the previous two summers doing field studies on bats in the West Virginia woods of the Monongahela National Forest, primarily the Virginia big-eared bat, a small creature with a big scientific name - "Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus." This type of bat is on the threatened or endangered species list maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act.

West Virginia is home to most of these cave dwellers. One cave harbors more than 6,350, the largest concentration of Virginia big-eared bats anywhere.

Because these bats do not feed until late evening, few have been observed foraging for their favorite insect delicacy, small moths. They have been found taking post-prandial naps near their favorite foraging areas, which include trees, sheds, bridges and even chicken coops.

To gather the data for his thesis, "Bat Habitat Associations in the Monogahela National Forest," O'Malley captured bats and recorded their echolocation calls -- a type of sonar in which bats make high-frequency calls from either of their mouths or noses and then listen for echoes to bounce from the objects in front of them. They then form pictures in their brains by listening to reflected sounds just as we form pictures in our brains by interpreting reflected light with our eyes. In this way, bats are able to comfortably move around at night, avoiding predators, maneuvering around obstacles, locating their food and capturing insects in total darkness.

With the help of a bat detector, a device that converts these echolocation calls inaudible to humans into audible, lower-frequency signals that are then broadcast over a small speaker, O'Malley recorded the calls onto 486 computer cassette tapes. By listening to the frequency of calls and rates at which they are produced, he can determine whether the bats are flying or feeding.

For a comprehensive look at bat habitats, O'Malley located bat detectors in three different types of forests where the creatures live. The first is the "xeric" type where trees that thrive in dry conditions can be found. Second is the "mesophytic" type, referring to trees requiring a cooler climate and greater amount of moisture. These forests are diverse and productive woody plant communities characterized by trees like poplars, oaks, hickories and basswoods, among others. "Northern hardwoods" are the third type, composed of varieties of maple, beech, hemlock, birch, pine and spruce that can live in course, sandy, often acidic soil and cooler temperatures.

O'Malley set up bat detectors in "transects" consisting of three data points for each type of forest among mature, 60-70 year-old trees deep within, on the edge and in the canopy of each forest.

This summer he began analyzing his taped collection of bat location calls with the help of statistical software. "It's a tedious process," he admits. He plans to finish by December, when he hopes to receive his graduate degree.

Added to this task are his new job responsibilities as a biologist for the W. Va. Department of Natural Resources Non-Game and Natural Heritage Program in Elkins. His employer is very supportive of O'Malley's research efforts because they fit nicely into this DNR program's mission of protecting endangered species. The program's Web site encourages those spotting the endangered big-eared bat to report their sightings to the Bat Report at wildlife@dnr.state.wv.us or by calling 304-637-0245.

Although O'Malley has a seemingly overwhelming amount of data to analyze, he is excited about his task. "It's almost baseline information," he says.

For further information on this release, contact:

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