Arizona Biologists Armed With Giant Nets Capture Bats To Help Save Them

Published: Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 1:34pm
Updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 3:11pm

(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Biologists set up a net to catch bats along the Verde River.

White nose syndrome has put bats on the map in a bad way. It’s a fungus that can grow on a bat’s nose and wings while they hibernate, and it’s killed millions of bats in the Northeastern U.S. Eighty percent of the bat population is gone.

It hasn’t hit Arizona yet — at least, as far as we know. Biologists who study bats here don’t have much historical data to see changes over time in local populations. Bats haven’t been closely monitored here in the past

“People were working with sexier species, and money was going to things that had more perceived economic importance or a higher appeal. There’s a lot of mystery  and confusion and myths about bats because it’s something, if we see it at all, it’s a fleeting glimpse of it in the dusk,” said Randy Babb, a biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Biologists like Babb have decided it’s time for bats to get the spotlight. So, they’re building a database of information by catching bats with giant nets.

Flip your circadian rhythm for a minute and imagine you’re a bat, just finishing a day’s sleep in your roost along the Verde River.

You wake up to the song of dusk — frogs croaking, crickets chirping. The day critters are going to bed, and the night owls are taking flight.

And you are hungry. Time to put those echolocation skills to good use and rustle up some grub. One of those crickets would be nice, but any moth or mosquito in your path will do.

It’s just a typical night of flying and hunting — until you get yourself trapped in a net.

A couple hours earlier, two biologists set up the net — 10 feet high — between two trees.

“If they’re going fast enough, they’re not gonna see it; or, hear it, because they use echolocation. So it’s just a matter of trying to catch them unaware,” said Kay Nicholson, one of those biologists.

She helps the Arizona Game and Fish Department with bat nettings. And though the bats may not enjoy the change in their evening plans, Nicholson is trying to help them.  

“White nose syndrome hasn’t made it here yet, to Arizona, but it could definitely spread here,” she said. “In my mind, it’s just a matter of when and how hard we’ll get hit.”

That’s why the biologists want to get to know the bats around here. So they can tell when something changes and by how much.

“The trick is you don’t know what’s going to be important, so you have to collect everything. And that is incredibly difficult,” Babb said.

When Babb looks at a bat, he makes lots of notes. What’s the species? The gender? Does the bat look healthy? Is it pregnant?

Then he lets the bat go and keeps the notes, which will give him a baseline to use to tell if something changes with the bats around here.

“So I look at her wings, there’s no tears or damage or anything like that,” Babb said while taking a look at their first “catch,” fresh out of the net.

That night he had an audience. Arizona Game and Fish opens up some of these bat nettings to the public — a sort of bat meet and greet.

Babb splayed out the little bat’s wings. A thin webbing stretched between slender bones.

“Each one of these fingers has the same number of joints that your fingers have in your hands,” Babb explained to the group.

“And I didn’t know bats lived 30 years,” Lisa Rosenburg said later. “I was like, ‘Wow’. I knew horses lived 30 years, I didn’t know bats lived 30 years.”

Rosenburg is learning a lot about bats tonight. Her experience with them before now has gone like this: “Every once in a while, because I was living in an old farmhouse, one would come down the chimney or one would end up in the house. Basically I would just cover it with a pot and take it outside and off it would go,” she said.

Randy Babb said most people think of bats as flying mice — a rodent with wings that takes up residence in their home or yard.

“But they are far more closely related to you than they are mice,” he told the group.

“They are mammals just like us,” Rosenburg said. “Didn’t realize how closely related they are to us until I was listening to him tonight.”

Then, they let the little bat go, to join the night again.

“There’s a whole ‘nother world waiting for us out there, and we seldom ever get a chance to experience it,” said Babb. “I mean, we’re just not nocturnal species you know?”

But with their flashlights and nets, Babb and the other biologists will keep staying up late to get to know their nighttime neighbors a little better.

The sun is rising again. Time for bed in the bat world.

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