1. How does aeroecology connect with your research involving bats?
One of my colleagues, Thomas Kunz, at Boston University coined the term aeroecology a couple of years ago to recognize that there is a whole group of organisms – birds and bats and insects -- that depend upon the lower part of our atmosphere for critical parts of their life history.
Marine biology has long been recognized as its own discipline for people who study organisms that live in the fluid of the oceans. Like the ocean, air is a fluid, and there are all these organisms that use the air. Air is their habitat.
All species of bats use the airspace to travel and find food, and some species migrate. Bats are an excellent model system for understanding aeroecology. To understand bats we have to understand how they are using the air space to meet their needs.
2) What is bioscatter? How is it helpful in tracking animals that fly?
Bioscatter is the term that we use to talk about the biological organisms in the air that we can detect with radar --birds and bats and insects. Using radar we can follow bird migration. We can see when bats emerge from their caves, at what time of day and under what conditions. The national network of Doppler weather radars known as NEXRAD record data every 5 minutes and we have an archive of the past 20 years of data, so this is a powerful tool for looking at patterns of species phenology – meaning we can compare activity of aerial animals across seasons and years and link those changes to variation in weather and climate.
3) Some of your previous research dealt with white-nose syndrome. How does this disease spread and how is it affecting the bat community?
White-nose syndrome is an emerging disease that is devastating bat populations in eastern North America. It first emerged in 2006 in Albany, N.Y. We don't know exactly how it spreads. We know that it is caused by a fungus that grows on the bats as they are hibernating. It's like a really terrible case of athletes' foot. Presumably it is spread from bat-to-bat contact but a lot more research needs to be done. What we do know is that among bats that are infected with white-nose syndrome, huge proportions of them die. My earlier research showed that the little brown bat, a very common bat in the northeast, is in danger of going extinct in the next 20 years if the death rates continue the way we've seen the past 4 years.
4) What drew your interest to studying bats?
Bats are fascinating organisms to study. They comprise about a quarter of all the world's mammals. There are roughly 1,200 species. Also, I fell in love with a bat biologist but I'd always been interested in biology. I was working for someone doing bat conservation and I fell in love with bats and with the person at the same time.
5) What's up next for your research?
I'm collaborating with atmospheric scientists and radar scientists at the University of Oklahoma and NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory to develop tools for other researchers to use radar data for studying birds, bats and insects in the aerosphere. We're working on estimating numerical density of bats using radar technology to understand how they disperse across landscapes.
I hope to continue research on White-Nose Syndrome focused on transmission dynamics of this disease to better understand how social characteristics of bats influence disease dynamics.
I'm also involved in other research in northwestern Mexico, looking at specialist and generalist nectar-feeding bats that feed in cactus flowers in the desert.