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Helping bats make safe connections

Doctoral student’s project raises money, awareness for bat habitats

 

Some hang from trees like leaves. Others prefer their own narrow houses, mounted on buildings or on a pole.

No, they’re not birds, they’re bats—and they’re constantly helping us by eating mosquitos and garden pests as they flutter around in the dark.

“They’re very different and very unique,” says Kristen Lear, a doctoral candidate in the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. As part of her research and general interest in bats, Lear is spearheading an initiative this month called Bulldogs for Bats to raise money to fund new bat houses throughout Athens as part of the Athens Bat Connection.

Kristen Lear stands near a bat house on campusBat houses aren’t like bird houses, she says. They are thinner and flatter with multiple chambers and a “landing strip” along the bottom to guide the bats into their little rooms. Bats are picky about where they live, it seems, which is why she and her team are launching an effort to build more.

“If you’re going to build a bat house, you have to do it right to increase the chances that the bats will use it,” says Lear. “But, it’s not super expensive so we’re trying to raise money for different bat houses around town.”

It’s important to give the bats safe homes, she says, because of all the benefits they bring. Too often, people confuse the realities about bats with fiction trumped up by Hollywood. For example: Bats are not going to suck your blood.

“There are 1,406 species of bats around the world, and only three of them are vampire bats. We don’t have vampire bats here in Georgia, and vampire bats don’t attack people,” says Lear. Also, she added, bats are not blind, and they will not swoop down and get tangled in your hair.

But, they will gladly eat any mosquitos that happen to be hovering near you.

“Usually, when you’re out walking around, you might have mosquitos or gnats buzzing around you, and so the bats are eating those insects. That’s probably why, if one swoops down near you, it’s because it’s trying to catch an insect,” says Lear. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about bats.”

Lear built her first bat house when she was working toward her Silver Award in Girls Scouts as a sixth grader. When she went to college she planned to become a wildlife veterinarian, but discovered bat conservation as an undergraduate while assisting with a doctoral student’s project. For her undergraduate Honors thesis project, she built and installed 18 bat houses in Texas pecan orchards to bring the benefits of bats to the pecan growers. Since then, she’s studied bats in Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship before starting her doctoral program at the University of Georgia.

At Warnell, she is part of the Integrative Conservation program, or ICON. This interdisciplinary program is a partnership between Warnell, the Odom School of Ecology, and UGA’s departments of anthropology and geography. Students develop projects that combine the natural and social sciences.

In Lear’s case, she is working on conservation plans for an endangered pollinating bat in Mexico that is integral to the production of agave used for tequila. She is coordinating with residents in Northeast Mexico to support habitats for the Mexican long-nosed bat as well as to support local livelihoods.

“I’ve been going out and doing foraging studies of the bats using infrared cameras, watching the bats feeding on the agaves to try and figure out what they prefer,” says Lear. “Do they like taller agave or a higher density of plants or an area with more flowering agave, so we can target our management strategies to fit those preferences.”

For Lear, working alongside bats has become second nature. But she understands why the nocturnal creatures are often misunderstood.

Hopefully, through upcoming educational events and programs like the Athens Bat Connection, Lear says more people will come to understand the benefits of bats. “I’ve always really loved bats—I’ve been drawn to them ever since I was a kid,” she adds. “I’ve known for a while that I wanted to do bat conservation, and I’m thrilled that I can make a career following my passion.”

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