Indiana State University Newsroom

Bat research in N.C., Tenn. aims to save rarest of species

September 26, 2014

Imagine a world overrun with insects: Farmers, desperate to salvage their crops, apply more and more pesticides. Food costs increase, and the public is slowly poisoned by the additional chemicals.

This scenario is possible, say researchers, if bats go extinct. These flying mammals gobble as much as their weight in bugs every night, protecting our comfort, health and economy.

Bats are fighting multiple threats these days -- white-nose syndrome and habitat destruction among them.

Luckily, bats also have staunch advocates on their side in the form of Indiana State University researchers who are working to stop the population skid.

"Each winter that goes by, we're seeing fewer and fewer (bats). Some of these caves are losing up to 99 percent of their bat populations due to white-nose syndrome, and it's so sad," said graduate student Vanessa Rojas. "But we're trying to get as much information as we can about these bats in order to protect them."

Rojas and Joey Weber, also a graduate student, worked earlier this year in northeastern Tennessee and the North Carolina mountains trying to learn more about the rarest species. The research is sponsored by the university's Center for Bat Research, Outreach and Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service and North Carolina Department of Transportation.

"I'm sure farmers are seeing it now; as we have fewer bats, we're going to have more insects. And a lot of those insects are affecting our crops," said Rojas, a doctoral student majoring in biology with a focus on ecology.

Virginia big-eared bats

The Virginia big-eared bat is a federally endangered species that has been found in four states -- Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. They were listed as endangered in 1979, and experts didn't discover their presence -- now a mere 400 bats -- on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina until the 1980s. And it wasn't until Weber of Rockford, Ill., and his team started tracking them with radio tags and towers that anyone knew where the females gave birth and raised their young.

This use of radio-telemetry tower technology to track the bats' migration habits is the second-ever application of the technology, said Joy O'Keefe, assistant professor of biology and director of the bat center.

Indiana State became involved in the research project when O'Keefe was approached by colleagues in North Carolina. O'Keefe said she immediately knew Weber was the researcher for the job.

"A lot of people could have bungled that study and not found much at all, but Joey went in there ... and found out things people had been wondering about those bats for 20 or 30 years," O'Keefe said.

Once a roost is located, Weber and his team hike and climb all over the area's unforgiving terrain to find and examine the cave. They take temperature and air-flow readings, trying to determine if a particular microclimate is preferred by the species.

Researchers must also be careful to not cause harm to the animals they're trying to protect. When white-nose syndrome first surfaced, scientists quickly discovered spelunkers might be spreading the fungus from cave to cave. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has closed infected caves to tourists, but researchers still must go in them - and it's not always known which caves are infected.

Equipment decontamination, therefore, is an important practice, and standards for this are in flux. Indiana State is known for its strictest adherence. At first, researchers soaked everything in Lysol; now, they're moving to a boiling method, O'Keefe said.

Indiana Bat

Just across the state line, Rojas and her team spent the summer in the northern district of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee looking for the federally endangered Indiana bat and the soon-to-be protected northern long-eared bat.

Last year, Rojas recorded what is believed to be the echolocation call of an Indiana bat -- the first time one has been heard in this area of the national forest. Rojas also hoped to track Indiana bats to their daytime roosts, but a summer of trapping yielded no Indiana bats.

"In particular, we're hoping to look at their maternity roosts. When the females are pregnant and when they're feeding their young, they'll group together in trees -- maybe just a few, but it can also be 70-80 bats or more using one tree," Rojas said. "We're trying to figure out what types of trees they're using and where in the forest those trees are located."

In the second year of a multi-year study, the northern long-eared bat was added to the project. It's one of 12 species in the area -- some rarer than others -- and Rojas' team is trying to sleuth out where they roost, how the population is shifting with white-nose syndrome and commercial development and how this area of the national forest is different from other parts.

This summer, Rojas' team was joined by Indiana State rising sophomore pre-med major, Alexis Bender of Brazil, Ind. It was Bender's first experience working with bats and fulfilled her desire to have a summer research experience. Rojas, who hopes to teach at a university someday, was also in her element, sharing with Bender her love for bats, her knowledge of them and research methods to learn more about them.

"I like the idea of giving someone younger that opportunity," Rojas said. "She may not go into bats and she may not even go into field work, but to have that experience and to tell friends about it is also important. I think that will help get the word out about bats, and she'll learn a lot about them."

When they catch a bat, the research team examines it and takes hair, skin and, if possible, guano samples and examines the animal for signs of white-nose syndrome.

At the end of a long day or week or after being stuck at the computer processing tedious data, Rojas remembers why her work is so important: She's helping protect a valuable group of animals. And part of that effort involves educating the public about them.

"I talk to so many people that know pretty much nothing about bats. They think they're mice with wings, and you're like, ‘No they're not rodents,' and that's just mind-blowing to them. And then all the other questions come in," Rojas said. "Working with them you notice their different personalities. You know you've got one that's a little more feisty, and then you've got one that's pretty nice and calm. You see all the different species, and you see how unique they are."


Photos: -- Indiana State graduate student Vanessa Rojas examines a bat while doing research in Tennessee this summer. - An overlook in Tennessee near where Indiana State graduate student Joey Weber conducted bat research this summer is seen. - Indiana State graduate student Joey Weber conducts an emergence count of Virginia big-eared bats in North Carolina in June. -- Indiana State graduate student Joey Weber demonstrates how radio-telemetry tower technology is used to track the bats' migration habits. -- Indiana State graduate student Joey Weber makes his way down the rock falls near a cave his team is studying. Researchers must navigate through all types of terrain to reach caves where bats roost. -- Indiana State graduate student Vanessa Rojas, center, and members of her team work to install a pole for netting bats. -- Indiana State graduate student Vanessa Rojas, right, explains to fellow Sycamore Alexis Bender, a sophomore, how the bat echolocation equipment works. - Indiana State University graduate student Vanessa Rojas examines a bat while doing research in Tennessee this summer. -- Indiana State University student Alexis Bender of Brazil, Ind., watches as a bat is examined.

Contact: Joy O'Keefe, assistant professor of biology and director of the Center for Bat Research, Outreach and Conservation at Indiana State University, 812-237-4520 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or