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Saint Mary’s professor researches biological impact of bats

| Friday, September 9, 2016

Updated at 2:00 p.m. on Sept. 12. 

After recent heavy rains, South Bend’s mosquito population has grown, and with it the risk of insect-borne diseases.

Assistant professor of biology at Saint Mary’s Laura Kloepper, along with her team of students, seniors Cassi Mardis and Stephanie Dreessen, thinks she found a way to keep the mosquitoes in check: turning to the bats for help.

Kloepper and her team of undergraduates students spent eight weeks studying the dynamics of flight and echolocation on Mexican free-tailed bats in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. 

Bats eat insects, Kloepper said, and although they prefer moths and beetles due to a higher fat content, they’ll also eat mosquitoes.

“It’s kind of like, if you’re at a big salad bar and there’s not a lot of meat, you’re going to eat a lot of the salad,” she said. “So they will eat mosquitoes and, with all the flooding we have been having, if we had a thriving bat population, they would definitely be helping to eat some of the mosquitoes we have around.”

Kloepper said she believes bats can provide a solution to the mosquito problem and that bat houses can bring bats to residential homes and yards.

“We can encourage bats to live among us,” she said,  “People can put up bat houses, that’s one thing they can do. It’s hard sometimes to get bats to take up residences in bat houses. It’s not necessarily an ‘if you build it they will come,’ it’s more of ‘if they’re already in your building, [they will come].’”

Dreessen, who has a bat box in her home, said her experience with having a bat box has been generally positive.

“My dad, over the summer, decided to put a bat box in,” she said. “It does take time for bats to realize the housing is available, but they will find it once they know where it is.”

There are various designs and styles of bat houses on the market.

“It’s like a box,” Dreessen said,  “Within the box, there are little sections, almost like a maze, and they’re really small, because bats are only so big and bats really like warm environments, so they’ll just cluster in there right next to each other.”

Mardis said bats can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in a single hour but are still regarded as pests.

Many people think bats are a scary thing, but they are extremely beneficial to the environment and actually not so scary,” she said.

Additionally, Kloepper said the concern that bats carry deadly diseases such as rabies isn’t true.

“Most people are scared of bats because they hear bats have rabies, and a lot of mammals carry rabies,” she said. “The statistic is that only 1 percent of all bats that have been brought in for testing have been tested positive for rabies.

“The thing to understand is if a bat has rabies, it is already going to exhibit abnormal behavior that will make it be more likely to be brought in for testing. So it’s thought that that 1 percent is highly inflated. You’re more likely to get rabies from a wild raccoon in your yard than you are a bat.

Recently, a fungus carried over from Europe has been reducing the population of bats found in the United States, specifically those in the northeast, and now, the Midwest.

“It’s called White-nose syndrome, and it’s a fungus that has just been wiping out bat populations,” Kloepper said. “It is thought that the fungus was brought over to the United States by humans.  

“It affects bats that hibernate, and we are in a cold climate. The bat species we have around here that would normally be flying around are hibernating bats, and these are species that are incredibly vulnerable to White-nose syndrome.”

Kloepper and her team said utilizing bats can help to not only save the bats but also to decrease South Bend’s pesky, and now dangerous, mosquito problem.

“When they tried to spray insecticide to kill off the mosquitoes, they in turn killed off the bees,” Dreessen said, “And [bats] are a different approach to that, but one that is more ecological and safe.”

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