July 26-Aug. 1, 2002
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Bats sing to University researcher

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In Memoriam
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Sam Abell: The Photographic Life
Howard’s architectural legacy: blending the old with the new
Bats sing to University researcher
professor of biology Kate Jones leads bat watch
Photos by Andrew Shurtleff
Bat detector in hand, associate professor of biology Kate Jones (above in foreground) leads a bat watch recently at Beaver Creek Park in Ivy. About 40 people attended the watch and had 5-10 bat sightings using the detector, which picks up high frequency bat calls, similar to sonar, emitted during feeding. During the watch, Lindy Auberry (below) and Emma Taylor, 10, reference a brown bat, one of the bat species sighted.

By Tony Germanotta, Copyright 2002, The Virginian-Pilot. Reprinted with permission.

Lindy Auberry and Emma Taylor

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Kate Jones had run a gantlet of dangling boa constrictors, braved the millions of animals flying by her hair and was knee deep in a heaving mix of guano and insects. Plus, the walls of the cave in Puerto Rico were covered by scorpions. “It was really horrible, the worst place in the world,” she said, a smile breaking across her face. “It was great fun.”

Jones is a bat person, and, she noted, “bat people are completely mad.”

Her love for the furtive, flying denizens of the dark has taken her to Kenya to help mediate bat problems in huts, to Borneo, a hotbed of bat diversity, and one night recently to the banks of a lake outside Charlottesville with a bat detector and about 50 neophytes.

In her native England, Jones used to run bat expeditions through the heart of London, using her detector to show crowds of up to 200 how many bats were hunting above streets Jack the Ripper once stalked.

A postdoctoral researcher at the University of Virginia, Jones, 29, is helping lead an international project to map bat ranges on a global computer database that could eventually help save the most endangered of the animals.

Bat facts

• One fifth of the species of mammals on Earth are bats.

• The bumblebee bat weighs less than a penny.

• The giant flying fox has a wingspan of 6 feet.

• Only three of the thousand-plus species of bats, the vampires, drink blood. They live in Latin America, not Transylvania.

• Bats are not blind.

• Bats are among the most threatened mammals on the planet. Half of them are threatened with extinction.

• Most bats have only one offspring a year and nurse the pup until it’s grown and able to fly and forage on its own.

• A bat can eat more than its body weight in insects every night — up to 2,000 mosquitos per bat.

There’s urgency in her mission. Bats are at the forefront of an environmental crisis, she said, similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

One fifth of the species of mammals on Earth are bats, Jones said. There are about 1,000 species of bats identified, she said, and more being found as researchers use new tools to look at old colonies.

One bat, the bumblebee, weighs less than a penny and is found only in Thailand. Another, the giant flying fox, a fruit bat from Indonesia, has a wingspan of 6 feet.
Many kinds of bats have bodies about the size of a mouse, although they are not rodents or even from the same branch of the evolutionary tree, says Jones. Though they fly, they are not related to birds.

They’re also not blind — some even feed in daylight. They don’t try to get into your hair — that legend might have evolved from their feeding on the insects that often hover above humans at dusk — and only three of the thousand-plus species, the vampires, drink blood. They live in Latin America, not Transylvania.

Bats are among the most threatened mammals on the planet. Half of the world’s bat species are threatened with extinction — a dozen disappeared recently, dozens more species are critically endangered.

In England, where Jones first discovered her passion as an undergraduate biology major, bats are protected. If one takes up residence in your rafters there, you don’t call a pest control company. Someone like Jones comes instead, armed only with information, and pretty soon you’re educated and protective about your bat, she said.

Jones was astounded by the low regard for bats she discovered when she came in 2000 for her research job at U.Va.

On the bat walk near Charlottesville, one woman asked Jones how she could get rid of the bats in her house.

Jones explained that house roosts are usually maternity homes where the mother bat can conserve energy while nursing her pup to adult size.

Most bats have only one offspring a year and must nurse until the pup is grown and able to fly and forage on its own. It takes about a month for the pup to grow around here, so the visitors are unlikely to stay beyond summer. After they leave, you can seal up the attic to keep them from coming back.

“As soon as they realize that it’s only for the summer, people become converts,” Jones said. “They love their bats.”

Bats are also beneficial — although the research is just beginning to document the extent of their value. A bat can eat more than its body weight in insects every night — up to 2,000 mosquitos per bat.

Nearly all of North America’s bats are insect eaters and, therefore, come out at dusk and roost at dawn. They’re just following the habits of their prey and, at night, there are few predators to get in the way, Jones said.

Slow reproduction rates and narrow feeding niches make bats especially vulnerable to environmental changes. That’s what had Jones in that Puerto Rican cave in 1999. She and other researchers looked at the impact of Hurricane Georges in 1998 on the bat population.

The hurricane’s 110 mph winds and heavy flooding resulted in severe declines in bat populations, especially in species that relied on nectar and pollen for food, the research found. The boa constrictors were hanging from the mouth of the cave, “fishing” for the remaining bats as they flew in and out.

Jones wound up at U.Va. because a professor there was building a team to look at evolution and extinction. Jones, who as a bat evolutionary biologist inhabits an academic niche nearly as narrow as the woolly bats in Africa that live in spider webs, found a place where she fit in.

Soon after she arrived, she heard a commotion in the corridor outside her tiny office. A bat had become confused and somehow gotten onto the second floor of Gilmer Hall, home of the biology department.

Someone summoned Jones. She thought it was a joke until she saw the small brown bat hanging on a wall. She gently caught it in one of her nets, put it in a cardboard box until dark and turned it loose.

She figured that was that.

Then one day last summer she was working at her computer and looked up to see a brown bat hanging contentedly from her doorway.

Again she caught it and put it in a box. When she came back to her office, the bat had gotten out and was flying around the ceiling. Just then, she got a call from some prominent professors in New Mexico inviting her to a conference on bats, rats and birds. She told them she would have to call back because there was a bat flying around her office. She has yet to live that down.

Still, they resisted the obvious. Nobody called her Batwoman or Batgirl.

“Just mad, I think, strange and bizarre,” she said. “The thing is, a lot of my friends are bat people. They can’t say anything.”


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