Sept. 8, 2014Vol. 45, Issue 1

Student’s Bat Box Project Aims to Fill Data Gap

Biology student Aithne Loeblich worked with art shop technician David Barta in July to make 10 bat shelters.

Student’s Bat Box Project Aims to Fill Data Gap

You could say Aithne Loeblich is batty about bats. The upper-division biology student spent much of her summer building shelters to attract the tiny winged creatures so she can study them more closely. 

As part of what will become a culminating undergraduate research project, Loeblich constructed 10 plywood houses to be placed at the University Farm and Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve. She used power tools and other equipment in the Department of Art and Art History’s workshop under the guidance of shop technician David Barta.

In the next few weeks, the 100-bat-capacity structures will be installed at the top of 20-foot poles with special listening equipment that will collect data on the animals’ species and numbers and patterns in feeding, breeding, and migrating. 

Loeblich plans to share her research with area farmers and others to educate the community about bats and their potential uses in the area’s economy. Since bats feed on disease-spreading insects like mosquitos, and moths, she said, they could be used to replace harmful chemical pesticides in farming and other applications.

“Northern California is one of the top agricultural producers in the world,” she said. “You’d think we’d have more data by now, but it’s just not there.”

Loeblich completed the structures in late August by staining the wood and adding roofing.

Loeblich completed the structures in late August by staining the wood and adding roofing.

Loeblich said that each night, bats eat their weight in insectsabout 50 grams worth, or up to 1,000 insects per night. But each farming season, myriad bats die from pesticide overdoses.

Most California bat species are sensitive or threatened, she said, and some are on the endangered species list.

“Most people don’t know anything about bats as a species, or they associate them with vampires,” she said. “Only three of the 1,000 bat species are actually vampires, and only one of those preys on humans. Bats are really important to California’s economy and environment.”

The $8,000 research project is being funded through the Associated Students Sustainability Fund, the Wes Dempsey Field Research Endowment, and the University Undergraduate Creativity and Research Award. Loeblich also received a $50 gift card from Home Depot, which she used to purchase materials.

The majority of the funding has gone toward purchasing acoustic equipmentboxes with microphones. Because bats echolocate at frequencies higher than humans can hear, special equipment is needed to pick up their sonar signals. Bats’ individual frequencies can be used to identify their species and gather data on their size, prey, sleeping habits, and more.

“There is an incredibly limited knowledge base about local bat populations,” said biology professor Colleen Hatfield. She and her husband, Butte College biology instructor Shahroukh Mistry, are advising Loeblich on the project. “We don’t know what species are here, when they get here, or when they leave.

“Essentially, this research is going to not only help us understand what bat species we have here and their history, but it will do two other things: It increases habitat for the batswhich is great because they’re a good species to have aroundand it is a great way to do outreach to administration, students, and the community about the value of bats.”

In late July, Loeblich completed the time-consuming task of using a table saw to cut shallow grooves into the sides of dozens of planks to be used for the boxes’ inner walls. The grooves will act like a ladder and give crevice-roosting bat species something to cling to in the houses.

Taking a break from her work, the Yuba College transfer student and U.S. Air Force veteran surveyed the wooden planks around her and smiled.

“My junior high shop teacher told me I’d never go anywhere or do anything with shop,” she joked. “I wish he could see me now.”

Sarah Langford, Public Affairs and Publications
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