But Bats Can Fly, Too…

Bat Monitors at the Aviary picked up the call of the Mexican free-tailed bat! This is one of Utah’s migratory bat species. Photo credit: Ann Froschauer on Flickr.

 

“How’s your climbing skills?”

With a sturdy stick, a microphone, and electrical tape on hand, the self-proclaimed bat lover, Kody Wallace, prodded me to scramble the trellis of the Chase Mill. Next to me, I could hear the chuckle of my colleagues in the Conservation Science Program, ecologists Cooper Farr and Bryant Olsen, as they patiently waited for me to accept the challenge ahead: strap a recording device to a high-up, open—yet subtle—place. Despite the pain of rock climbing the day prior still pounding through every conceivable muscle in my hands and back, Kody’s keenness and endless energy motivated me to ramp up for the task. Fortunately, a quick observation of the taller height of my co-worker, Suryaveer Singh, saved my sore fingers from ascending the wall. At a cool 6-feet, he was deemed capable of raising the microphone a suitable distance from the ground for attaching the stick to the Mill.

What in Darwin’s name were we doing? We were setting up a bat monitor! This is a device that kind of looks like a large radio with a microphone attached to it. The microphone is connected via a long cable, allowing us to strap the microphone, using electrical tape, onto the end of a stick to point it toward the sky and into open air where we expect bats to fly. The recorder itself (the “large radio”) is safely stored inside a weatherproof cargo box. Once it is turned on, the recorder does what it does best: listen for high-pitched sound.

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The bat monitor is programmed to record bat calls between 7:45pm in the evening and 7:15am in the morning because this is when bats are feeding.

As non-technical a stick and tape sounds, these are essential tools to take advantage of a powerful advancement in acoustic technology. Bat monitors are sensitive enough to take advantage of the noisy nature of bats by recording their echolocation. This is a special adaptation that allows bats to “see” their surroundings. They will produce a high-pitched sound—either a call or a click—and then listen for the echo. The bat monitor records these calls and allows us to translate them into “echolocation signatures.” This is akin to written language in that we can see the shape of the waveforms produced by their sounds. Each bat species has a unique echolocation signature, just how humans all have a unique tone to their voice. With practice, you can then play a matching game of the echolocation signature to the species of bat!

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 The echolocation signature of the Hoary bat, a migratory species that calls Salt Lake City their home in the spring, summer, and fall. Credit: Utah Bat Conservation Cooperative.

 

“But aren’t you an Aviary?”

A friend asked me this recently as I excitedly rambled on and on about Utah bats, Kody and her infectious passion for researching bats, and how fun it was to tinker with the monitors. My first thought was, “Hey, bats fly, too!” Although, with deeper thought, I realized that they were speaking to a broader question: why should the Aviary care about non-avian species? 

Aside from the commonality of bats being as capable of flight as many birds are, Tracy Aviary as a zoo certified by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) is committed to conservation. This translates into: breeding programs that create assurance populations of threatened bird species, education initiatives that generate deeper understanding and appreciation for all living things, and protection of wild habitats and wildlife. All of these are tied to understanding, appreciating, and protecting not just birds, but the habitats in which they live. Doing this involves also paying attention to the other species—from microscopic invertebrates to large, charismatic animals—that live in these habitats. This is because, whether we know it or not, each species plays a critical role in the health of an ecosystem. For this reason, the Conservation Science Program conducts surveys all across the valley that takes a close look at not just what is going on with Utah’s wild birds, but also the status of mammals of conservation concern, such as the western grey squirrel in the valley and pika in our mountains.

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Tracy Aviary’s Conservation Science Program assesses health of local wild places and wildlife by surveying birds, mammals, and plants in select locations across the Wasatch Front.

 

Getting batty for bats in northern Utah

In northern Utah, we are blessed with an abundance of unique species…of conservationists! There is a plethora of organizations, community groups, and individuals that are all pushing for preservation of healthy air, lands, and water. Among these actors is Kody Wallace, a community scientist with Wild Project Utah. Petite in size, Kody carries a lot of punch for investigating seemingly simple inquiries that require tenacity to navigate the complex truths that they lead to. In just a brief conversation with her, she took me on a fifteen-year long journey of volunteering with conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy in Utah and Wild Utah Project. By lending her skills in bat acoustics and mist netting, Kody has generously volunteered alongside biologists of various specializations to pin down where in northern Utah particular bat species roost, what happened to these roosts, where the bats went to, and how to recruit fellow bat-warriors to her cause.

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Did you know that bats eat up to 1,000 insects an hour? Lucky for Utah, we have 18 species of bats to keep insects like mosquitos, midges, and mayflies at bay. Featured here is one Utah’s migratory species: the Brazilian free-tailed bat. Photo credit: Kathleen Smith on Flickr

Kody is impressive in many ways, but I’d like to re-direct the attention here to the phrase “year-round bat research.” Most people believe bats to hibernate over the winter. While this is true of some bat species, others might not hibernate at all. In fact, they do just the opposite. These bats keep it moving all year round by traveling to Utah for the spring through fall and then flying south of us for the winter. Until now, most bat research takes place while these bats are accessible to us, but little to no studies have happened during the transition period into and out of the winter, when these bats are on the move.

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Kody Wallace (right) explains the protocol for setting up a bat monitor. Photo credit: Mary Pendergast, Wild Utah Project

As it turns out, the Aviary may be a destination for these flying mammals, especially for the handful of Utah’s bats that migrate south during our winter. The Aviary itself provides trees for bats to roost, while the ponds in the Aviary and on the south end of Liberty Park serve as water sources. These bodies of water also attract the insects bats like to eat. In 2015, we set out monitors that picked up on Brazilian free-tailed bats, a migratory species that is known to travel all the way to South America in the winter. Because of this detection, Tracy Aviary was selected as a pilot site. Bat monitors are up around town in other locations, too, including at the site of one of a fellow AZA-certified institution, Utah’s Hogle Zoo.

With the support of the Wild Utah Project, the bat monitors are currently being tested at the Aviary to find the best locations for recording bat echolocation and to identify an easy-to-do method for downloading data and maintaining the monitors. Eventually, Wild Utah Project would like to open this bat research to Utahns, like you, to get as bat crazy as we are by volunteering to maintain the monitors. We are so excited to see how well the monitors detect bat calls and which species we have living at and passing by the Aviary! Stay tuned with us as we wait for updates.

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The Nature Conservancy in Utah is interested in the movement of migratory bats as the move from their roosting habitats here in northern Utah (spring-fall) to their winter habitats deeper south in the US, Mexico, Central America, and South America. Stay tuned with us throughout the study as we discover more!

 

Learn More

Utah Bat Conservation Cooperative – Learn more about how bats are studied

Wild Utah Project – Learn more about an integral partner in the regional effort to better understand bats.

Bat Conservation International – Bat-ter up for more facts on bat here

 

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Interested in volunteering for conservation?

We are looking for volunteers for Fiesta for Nature, a family-fun extravaganza celebrating nature in all of its forms! Visit the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve while enjoying free tacos and sharing your passion for conservation. This happens to be a place that is very important for bats, too! Click here to register as a volunteer.

 

 

- Lucila Fernandez, Conservation Outreach Biologist