Professor, students study bats

It was a brisk Thursday morning in Erie as a professor and two students trekked across the Gannon University campus with a 9-foot ladder in tow, peering into building crevices in search of tiny, winged mammals.

The man was Steven Ropski, a professor in the biology department, who is leading Gannon’s investigation of the bat population around the university campus. He and his two assistants were making their daily rounds tracking down bats to collect data for the studies.

Ropski has been looking into the bats’ habitats and migration patterns as well as a disease that has become an epidemic in bats across the country called white-nose syndrome, or WNS. He said this research is necessary for two reasons, first because bats are an integral part of the ecosystem.

“They control insects,” he said. “Without insect control, we have to use more pesticides and chemicals, which means your food will cost more and won’t be as healthy.”

The second purpose of his research is to learn more about WNS and to see if and how the disease progresses, as well as to discover how he can make the campus more bat-friendly by learning more about the bats’ habitat preferences.

“White-nose syndrome has broken out across the east coast and is causing little brown bat numbers to decline like crazy,” he said. “We haven’t seen it in Erie or in non-cave-dwelling bats, but we’re wondering if it could spread. If that’s the case, we need to be concerned.”

Ropski said his ardent interest in bats did not just begin during his time at Gannon. His graduate professor at Indiana State University, who was an expert on bats, first introduced him to the research.

“I guess he rubbed off on me,” he said.

When Ropski came to Gannon in 1984, he said he could not get enough students involved for him to begin his research. It wasn’t until 1990 that he was finally able to start it up again, and it has been going on every four or five years since, depending on the number of students interested in being a part of the project.

Ropski said this is the first time he has had enough student interest to do research for two years in a row. He led a group that began to amass data in summer 2010, and the research has continued steadily since.

“This is really nice because we’ll have some data from consecutive years,” he said.

He said this is important because they can see patterns or inconsistencies in the data without being interrupted by large gaps of time.

For this year’s bat season, which began in March and is slowly starting to come to a close, two student assistants have been aiding Ropski: junior biology major Sarah Glancy and sophomore biology/pre med major Katie Corello.

Glancy has been helping with the research since summer, and Corello said she just started about a month and a half ago.

“I wanted to see how research is conducted,” Glancy said. “It was good experience during the summer when I had a lot of free time, and it’s pure volunteer work.”

Corello said that she was motivated to seek out a place in the bat research because she had heard good things about it from her peers, and that she has been enjoying working in the field rather than simply paging through books.

“I thought Dr. Ropski’s research would be the most interesting,” she said. “I like it because it’s hands on and I get to be close to the animals.”

Now that the semester is in full swing, Glancy said she has gotten busier but still values the time she volunteers to the research. The trio tries to work on collecting data by going on bat walks almost daily. The bat walks typically last for about 45 minutes.

Ropski said they hope to figure out not only which buildings are popular and why, but also which sides of the buildings are most popular.

“We’re finding very few bats on the south sides of buildings because there’s too much sunlight,” he said. “On the west sides, they can move around a little more.”

Some of the more popular buildings for the bats to roost in are the Palumbo Academic Center, the Loyal Christian Benefit Association (LCBA) building, and Old Main.

“It’s surprising how obvious they are,” Glancy said as she carefully propped the ladder against the side of LCBA and glanced up at a tiny brown mass high up on the brick wall. “You probably walk past 10 bats a day and don’t even notice.”

Glancy said when she scours the buildings for bats, the first places she looks are entranceways, corners of windows and under any overhangs.

They also include the Morosky College of Health Professions and Sciences and the parking ramp next to it in the bat walks, but these are the least popular locations. Ropski said he suspects this is the case because the texture of Morosky is smoother, and bats feel more comfortable with a rough surface they can securely cling to. However, he said he has been surprised at some of the places he has discovered bats over the years.

As the group passed the Hammermill Center, he gestured to the numerals of the date 1912 engraved in the bricks.

“One year I found one tucked into one of these numbers,” he said.

On this particular day, when the research team found a bat, and it was low enough to the ground that it could be reached by ladder, either Glancy or Corello climbed to the top with a small tube of washable paint and a brush.

While Ropski held the ladder securely in place, Glancy climbed up to reach the highest bats, as her 6-foot-1-inch frame allowed for maximum extension. She then took a small dab of washable paint and lightly marked the bat, trying not to disturb it. Corello then used a notebook to record the location of the bat and color of paint they used.

If they come across bats that they have already marked, they look back in the book to find out how long ago they marked it, where they found it and it if moved to a different location or not. Glancy said it’s always interesting to see bats they have already marked in a new place.

“That tells us it’s healthy and active because it was out looking for food,” she said.

Glancy said they try to disrupt the bats as little as possible, and for this reason they rarely mark them if they are found in clusters of two or more.

“They’re more likely to wake up if they’re in groups,” she said. “If one gets disturbed, it’ll wake up the others. It wastes the energy that they need to fly around and search for food.”

Corello noted another reason they try not to wake up the bats as they came across one in a corner outside the Office of Admissions. She was startled by a high-pitched squealing from the disgruntled bat as she tried to mark it.

“They can get pretty feisty,” she said.

Glancy added that in spite of this, she doesn’t think there is any reason for people to be afraid of bats.

“Bats are actually great neighbors,” she said. “They can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in one hour.”

Ropski said that he stresses to his assistants the importance of disrupting the bats as little as possible, because while they are allowed to mark them, they are not allowed to touch them. The license they receive from the game commission stipulates a strict no-handling policy.

“The more you try to handle the bats, the more likely they are to fly,” he said. “This causes them to waste energy and they’re more likely to die. The only problem with the paint we use is that if it rains, it can wash off.”

The game commission’s policy may become even stricter if the brown bats that are central to the research go on the endangered species list. Ropski said that with WNS as a constant threat, this is a possibility for the future.

“We certainly won’t be able to handle them if they go on the endangered species list,” he said. “I’m not sure what we’ll be able to do in terms of marking them. We’ll have to see what happens over the winter.”

White-nose syndrome is a fungus that affects cave-dwelling bats, and according to Ropski, it has really been decimating their numbers. He also said that since it is caused by a fungus, it has to develop in a cool, moist environment with a temperature of about 45-50 degrees.

“It’s like when you get athlete’s foot,” he said. “It’s a fungus that thrives when it’s in a constant temperature like that.”

Ropski said the reason WNS is so deadly to bats is the way it disrupts their hibernation patterns. He said the fungus infects their noses and makes them want to scratch it, causing them to stir and become active in the winter when they should be hibernating, as there is no food for them to hunt anyway. It all goes back to energy waste being extremely hazardous to them.

“Sometimes they’ll even go so far as to venture out of the caves and look for insects but obviously don’t find any,” Ropski said. “People have found thousands of dead bats in caves affected by WNS, or right outside the cave, and it’s still snowing.”

According to Ropski, some caves in Pennsylvania have mortality rates as high as 95 percent because of WNS.

“It’s just a bad scenario, this whole white-nose syndrome thing,” he said. “The analogy can be made to that hive collapse syndrome in bees that caused the bee population to drop dramatically a few years back.”

Ropski said that he hopes the research his team is doing on popular bat habitats on campus can help the species if it becomes endangered. He said that when they have collected significant data, they hope to alert the grounds crew so that they can construct bat houses in the most inhabited locations.

“The more we can enhance our campus for them to survive, the better it will be for the environment,” he said.

Glancy said that she worries that the disease could spread to non-cave-dwelling bats, which would affect their research.

“Some caves in the area are already closed down to visitors because the fungus can be transferred out of the caves on their clothes,” she said. “Hopefully bats that are immune to it will continue to survive and can pass on the gene,” she said.

This year, the bat season started in March when the bats started becoming active, and Ropski said they are starting to see a decline in numbers as the bats start to either hibernate or head south for the winter. In the past couple of weeks, he said they have only been seeing five or six bats a day. This is a dramatic difference from the peak of the season in the summer, when they would see an average of 60 per day.

He pointed out a group of dead bees that littered the steps of Old Main and said that bats strictly feed off of insects, and the cold weather has started killing off this essential food supply. He said that they will spend the winter as far south as they need to in order to find a reliable food source, or will hibernate locally in warm places like chimneys or garages.

Glancy and Corello said that they enjoy working with Ropski because of his passion not only for his bat research, but also for other animal studies as well. Even as he focused on the bat walk, he kept his eyes open for other animal sightings.

“Look at the geese heading south,” he said, breaking off a thought about the bats midsentence. “They’re going the right way, that’s good. See, I’m a biologist, I don’t miss these things.”

CHRISTINE PEFFER

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