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Bat to Nature: UNC study aims to track bat populations and break down misconceptions about this keystone species

September 8, 2023 Batpack volunteers hike the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Jacob Thorsheim.

Bats are a keystone species in our ecosystem and contribute to the success of our economy. Despite the key role these tiny mammals play, there has been little research into their localized species abundance and population fluctuations along the Appalachian Trail, a hotspot for bat biodiversity.

6 p.m., July 15, 2023 
Cold Spring Shelter, Appalachian Trail 

Shortly after settling into a stopping point for the night, the sky rapidly darkened, much faster than it normally would during a summer sunset. Rain hammered the roof of the rustic shelter that was hosting Reagan Jerrett and seven volunteers for the BatPack project, a research program monitoring bat populations and reconnecting people with nature along the Appalachian Trail. Despite the storm, specialized audio recorders needed to be deployed to collect ultrasonic noises produced by bats. The volunteers strapped on their already damp boots to scout for suitable recording positions. While bats are typically inactive during heavy rain, the storms were scattered, so the team was still hopeful.

“Bats provide essential ecosystem services such as insect management/suppression, seed dispersal and pollination, all of which have direct and indirect positive effects on humans and our economy,” said Grace Kinder, a UNC senior and researcher who wants to help close the knowledge gap between bats and humans, one hike at a time. “North Carolina stands out as the state with the most documented bat species east of Texas, with 17 recorded species,” she added.

Kinder started the BatPack project not only to bridge knowledge gaps that surround bats on the Appalachian Trail, but to bring people together for a shared cause. BatPack gives volunteers of all skill levels the opportunity to step into the boots of a field scientist and learn about the ecosystem firsthand.

Kinder and her team don’t need nets or traps to monitor and identify bats—they use sound. Bats produce ultrasonic sound waves in the process of hunting. Each species produces a distinct sound signature which can be used for identification. Before the sun sets, the volunteers attach full-spectrum audio recorders, Wildlife Acoustics monitors or AudioMoths, to trees or tents. With the help of technology, researchers don’t have to devote hundreds of hours to attentively listening to these recordings. A specialized audio analysis software program called Kaleidoscope analyzes and sorts the bat calls into species and occurrences.

Kristina Hefferle attaches an Audio Moth audio recorder to a tree near the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Jacob Thorsheim.
Kristina Hefferle attaches an Audio Moth audio recorder to a tree near the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Jacob Thorsheim.

UNC research assistant professor and mentor to Kinder, Rada Petric, explained one of the primary benefits of bats.

“In North Carolina alone, all of the bats that we have are insect-eating species and contribute billions of dollars in the U.S. economy alone in terms of pest control. They’re extremely beneficial when we’re assessing and looking at ways that we can reduce the amounts of pesticides we are applying in an ecosystem,” she said.

In addition to reducing the effects insects have on agriculture, Petric highlighted the role bats play in disease prevention. While bats are often seen as pests or spreaders of disease, a single bat can eat over 1,100 mosquitos in one feeding frenzy.

Although bats provide many benefits to people, human activity has had less favorable effects on bats. According to Petric, millions of bats have died over the past two decades due to disease, wind turbine induced overpressure-injuries, pesticide application and habitat loss from urbanization.

Since the arrival of white-nose syndrome (WNS) in New York State in 2006, insectivorous bat populations in North America have been devastated. As the bats in the region rely on insects as their main food source, they have to hibernate to survive insect-sparce winters.

“The fungus makes their noses super itchy, and it wakes them up and they’re not able to conserve their energy, so they die of starvation,” Petric said.

Both Kinder and Petric emphasize that this is not a short-term project. Considering the number of challenges facing bats in North America, it’s important for scientists to track their population levels and distribution. This way, they can establish baseline population levels to inform future conservation efforts.

During summer 2023, BatPack volunteers trekked over 150 miles of the Appalachian Trail across eight expeditions. They hope that citizen scientists will continue to volunteer, learn more about the world around them, and contribute to the conservation of bats in North America. To join Kinder and her team on their next research trip, visit the BatPack Instagram page for future trip details and signup.

Story by Jacob Thorsheim

Jacob Thorsheim is a recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate from Charlotte, North Carolina. Thorsheim has experience in environmental life-cycle assessment (E-LCA), agrivoltaic systems, and sustainable development. He completed an environmental studies degree with a concentration in sustainability in August 2023. He hopes to continue work that advocates for and contributes to environmental stewardship.

Grace Kinder is a senior majoring in environmental studies within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and a summer research assistant at the UNC Institute for the Environment’s Highlands Field Site.

Rada Petric is a research associate professor and director of the Highlands Field Site at the UNC Institute for the Environment.