Indiana State University Newsroom

Whitaker named Distinguished Scholar

April 20, 2011

John Whitaker's father had a chair in his dentist office waiting for his oldest son to come work alongside him.

Whitaker became a different kind of doctor.

"In eighth grade, my mother and I were standing at the sink and she said, ‘You know, you don't have to be a dentist if you don't want to,'" Whitaker recalled.

Whitaker, who grew up in Oneonta, N.Y., turned to his mother and said, ‘OK, I won't.' He then said he wanted to attend Cornell University and study vertebrate natural history.

This spring the Indiana Academy of Science presented Whitaker with its Distinguished Scholar Award for his almost 50 years of mammal research at Indiana State University.

"It's wonderful," Whitaker, professor emeritus of ecology, said. Whitaker is the ninth member of the academy to receive the award since 1995. Marion Jackson, ISU emeritus professor of life sciences, was the previous recipient in 2009. "It's really a great honor."

In between his declaration to his mother and the award, is more than 50 years of studying mammals, with particular emphasis on their ectoparasites and food habits. During that time, he discovered 150 new species of parasitic mites in mammals.

After Whitaker earned his doctorate at Cornell in 1962, he took the position at Indiana State although he also had an offer from Indiana State at Indiana, Penn.

"I liked this one better," he said. "I thought this one had more research potential."

He began planning for that research before he left New York for Indiana. He obtained the 12 quadrangle maps of Vigo County. He divided the maps into 25 by 25 meter sections, creating more than 1.6 million plots. He then selected 500 of the plots at random. The day after he arrived in Terre Haute, he began trapping in the plots to discover what mammals lived there. He also collected fish at over 300 localities to determine their species and distribution in Vigo County.

"I wore out one car - a brand new car," Whitaker said with a smile. He drove an average of about 200 miles on average during each week setting out traps on Thursdays after class, checking the traps on Fridays and Saturdays, then picking up the traps on Sundays.

"I wanted to determine what mammals lived here and about their biology," he said. "It was for both research and teaching purposes. I needed to know what was here to teach about it."

Information gathered during that research has been published in four books: "Mammals of Indiana", "Mammals of Indiana: a Field Guide", "The Audubon Field Guide to North American Mammals", and "Mammals of the Eastern United States". Still another book that Whitaker has been working on for the past 50 years is "Food Habits of North American Mammals" which will be completed within the next few years and is co-authored by Laura Bakken.

Though Whitaker is in the second year of his phased retirement, he has no plans to leave his research and his writing. Recently, he and his administrative assistant sat down to list his ongoing projects and came up with more than 50. Many of those projects stem from ISU's Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation, which Whitaker founded in 2005.

"The main job of the bat center is to do research and conservation and to educate the public on bats," he said.

To that end, Whitaker is researching White Nose Syndrome, which has killed more than a million bats across the northeast and is moving west; examining why wind farms are killing bats; and planning for the fifth annual bat festival on Aug. 27.

White Nose Syndrome, which has decimated bat populations hibernating in eastern caves, has now invaded Indiana. The syndrome gets its name from a white fungus growing on the bats' noses. The bats actually die of starvation as their fat stores have been depleted long before winter ends.

"Most people think the fungus could be the cause," Whitaker said "We think that chitinase-producing bacteria, which live in their intestines, could be involved."

Very small pieces of chitin left over from the digestion of insects remain in the bats' intestines during winter hibernation. The chitinase-producing bacteria slowly digest the chitin as it passes through the intestines; this process may in turn provide a source of energy which helps maintain the bats through the winter, until they and the insects upon which they feast, once again emerge.

"Normal bats have chitinase-producing bacteria, but White Nose Syndrome bats have a lot fewer," Whitaker said.

Without the bacteria to digest the chitin, the bats could be starving to death. ISU researchers, Kathleen Dannelly and Angie Chamberlain along with Whitaker, are investigating what the link may be between the bacteria, the fungus, and the dying bats.

Another investigation examines migrating bats killed by the spinning blades at wind farms.

"I've seen enough preliminary numbers to know it will be huge," Whitaker said about the number of bats killed by wind turbines.

Between the syndrome and wind farm production, Whitaker fears for the future of bats.

"White Nose Syndrome kills the hibernating bats. Wind farms kill the migratory bats," Whitaker said. "I guess the real question is which will be eliminated first, the migratory or the cave bats?"

It is not known why bats are flying at the height of the wind turbines. "We think they might be feeding," he said. "It might be that the towers appear to bats and moths as trees." Whitaker's research focuses on whether the bats fly to that level to forage.

With environmental stressors, including diminishing habitats, affecting bats, the third prong of the center's approach - education - becomes vital for the future of bats. Each year about 1,200 people attend the festival celebrating bats. The festival features a live bat exhibition and an evening excursion to listen to bats as they venture out for nightly feedings.

"The bat festival is about helping people go from thinking bats are creepy to cool," Whitaker said. "Bats are the major predator of night flying insects and are very important to help maintain the balance of nature." He added that bats eat tons of agricultural and other pest insects.

Natural history continues to fascinate Whitaker as it did when he was a child and collected dead and living animals to create a natural history museum in the basement of his parents' house.

"I charged people a penny to come in," he said. "I probably made a dime."

Whitaker still finds himself collecting animals as he continues his research.

"I like finding out new things, finding out things people didn't know before," he said.

John Whitaker pauses during bat research in a cave. ISU Photo
John Whitaker holds a bat during a research trip to a cave. ISU Photo

Contact: John Whitaker, Indiana State University, professor emeritus of ecology, at 812-2383 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or