Interns are for the bats!

Glasgow Kentucky
Thursday, September 9, 2010

SCA Interns at Mammoth Cave National Park research bats

By Vickie Carson, Photo credit: Ann Griggs

(MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK - August 26, 2010) Did your summer involve night-vision goggles, infra-red LEDs, and acoustic transects? Marissa Maldonado, Midlothian, Va., and Samantha Sterman, of New York, N.Y., can say “yes” to that question - they interned at Mammoth Cave National Park from June through August and used night-vision goggles along with infra-red LEDs at roost entrances and drove acoustic transects along roads to monitor bats.

“We have some unusual work for students who are conservation-minded and want to spend their summer outdoors,” said Eddie Wells, the park’s volunteer coordinator. “We hosted 16 interns this summer, and sent them out to test water quality in the backcountry, inventory protected plants, combat exotic plants, as well as monitor the park’s bat populations.”

Assigned to the night shift, Maldonado and Sterman traveled all over the 53,000-acre park in search of bats. They positioned themselves at known bat roosts (cave entrances, buildings, and trees) at dusk and waited for bats to exit. Using infrared lights and night-vision goggles, they counted each bat and recorded its species, if known.

Some nights Maldonado and Sterman gathered data using a recording-bat-detector on loan to the park from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). With a microphone attached to the roof of a truck, they drove an established route at 20 mph. The detector recorded ultrasonic calls (echolocation) that bats make when traveling or feeding in low light conditions.

“The information we gain from this study will be shared with USFWS and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources,” said Park Superintendent Patrick Reed. “With white-nose syndrome on our doorstep, these are critical data that we haven’t previously collected—at least not on this scale.”

White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease that has killed approximately 1 million bats in the eastern United States since 2006. In caves where WNS is present, up to 95 percent of the bats have died during hibernation. The disease has not been discovered in Kentucky to date.

Maldonado graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in biology (2010). Sterman will begin her second year at Oberlin College this fall.

The summer interns at Mammoth Cave were hired through the Student Conservation Association (SCA); the park received special funding through the National Park Service Youth Intern Program.

“SCA provides us with skilled, enthusiastic workers,” said Dr. Rick Toomey, director of the Mammoth Cave International Center for Science and Learning, who coordinates park research projects. “The students get experience working in land management by helping the park with significant environmental issues. In the case of the bat monitoring program, the emergence counts and acoustic transects will provide base-line data critical to park management. The information will also be fed into a national study of summer bat activity.”

In the photo, Mammoth Cave NP Bat interns Marissa Maldonado (far left) and Samantha Sterman (far right) position themselves at the entrance to Dixon Cave to count bats.