When I heard that biology students were studying bats that fly around the Transylvania University campus, I knew there had to be a good Halloween column there. Could a punch line be much easier?
But what struck me was the fascinating technology used for this research. It is an example of how new and relatively inexpensive digital devices are revolutionizing science.
It was a dark and spooky night when I met Transylvania biology teacher Joshua Adkins outside a classroom building. We were soon joined by three biology majors: juniors Kelli Carpenter and Devin Rowe, and sophomore Brandon Couch.
Kentucky has 16 species of bats. Many live in colonies in remote caves and forests. But other, more solitary species like city life, where street lights attract an endless buffet of insects for them to eat.
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"A lot of basic, fundamental questions are unknown about many species of bat because they're small, they're nocturnal, they live in places you can't easily access and they pretty much avoid or ignore people," Adkins said.
Adkins and his students knew there were bats on campus. In their search for nooks in which to hide, bats occasionally wander in an open window. One flew into the orchestra room Sept. 9, causing quite a stir.
"I go to lacrosse games, which are usually at night," Couch said. "I've seen a lot of them swooping over the athletic fields."
Despite their creepy appearance and fictional association with vampires, bats are nice to have around because they eat mosquitoes and other insect pests. Last year, Rowe and a student environmental group raised money to build two bat shelter boxes on campus.
"The idea really was to get a sense of where bats are most active and then use that information to place bat boxes in the most effective places," Adkins said.
But since bats are small, dark and avoid people, how could the students figure out their favorite campus hangouts?
Luke Dodd, a bat ecologist who teaches at Eastern Kentucky University, told Adkins about a new $400 microphone that can detect the sounds bats make as they fly, most of which can't be heard by the human ear.
The Echo Meter Touch, made by Wildlife Acoustics Inc., plugs into an iPad and comes with software that records and can identify the species of nearby bats with about 80 percent accuracy.
Adkins got money from Transylvania's David and Betty Jones Fund for Faculty Development to purchase a couple of microphones and iPads. One night a week since June, his three students have made three-minute recordings at a dozen locations around campus, and they have found a lot of bat activity.
Transylvania's campus seems to have five species of bats: big brown, hoary, silver-haired, Eastern red and evening.
On the night I walked around campus with them, they might have found a sixth. At one listening station, Rowe's iPad detected a long-legged myotis bat, which normally is found in western North America.
"I'm not sure about that, but bats are migrating now," Adkins said. "Maybe it could be lost."
"Maybe he's on vacation," Carpenter joked. "Checking out Martha's Vineyard."
One species the students probably won't find on campus is Rafinesque's big-eared bat, which, like its namesake, prefers to live in forests.
Constantine Rafinesque was an eccentric biologist who was on the Transylvania faculty from 1819 until President Horace Holley fired him in 1826 because he was always in the woods doing research and rarely on campus teaching.
Legend has it that Rafinesque put a curse on Holley, who was forced out of Transylvania and died the following year. Rafinesque died in 1840 in Philadelphia, but his body was dug up in 1924 and reinterred in Transylvania's Old Morrison Hall. Rafinesque's tomb is a popular campus attraction, especially at Halloween.
The students' bat research will be winding up soon because bats hibernate after the first frost of winter kills most insects. Adkins hopes to get funding to continue their work next year and to expand it to include a study of campus insects that bats eat.
"Given that we're a college right in the middle of Lexington, this is a perfect setting to determine what are some general patterns of bat activity in a city," Adkins said. "Once these guys collect more data and present their results, I hope it will help take away that negative stereotype bats have."