Conservation Biology Takes Flight at Dr. Joseph Johnson’s “BatLab”

By Katelyn Rousch

While the BatLab at Ohio University might not be the hideout for a certain iconic Gotham vigilante, it is home to a group of passionate conservation superheroes. Dr. Joseph Johnson and his grad students are all about studying and supporting the group that makes up nearly 25 percent of all mammal species: bats.

To everyone besides mammalogists, this figure might be a surprise. Bats are shockingly diverse, and due to this, there is still a lot of information that nobody knows about bats. According to Johnson, BatLab seeks to fill-in those, “important gaps in knowledge that prevent us from achieving conservation measures.”

A hibernating colony of little brown bats, Photo by Dr. Johnson

Bats are often portrayed as alien or even malicious creatures, but they are actually quite similar to humans. For instance, Johnson remarked that little brown bats have a very small number of offspring they take great care of for long periods of time. They also form tight social bonds with one another, similar to the way people do. While features like these are what get mammalogists excited about bats, there is a greater urgency to the research teams like BatLab are doing- the bats are dying.

The disease that’s killing them is called white-nose syndrome, and it has reduced populations of susceptible species anywhere from 90 to 99 percent. Amongst the little brown bats Johnson’s studied, there are only three confirmed sites where the species still hibernates in Ohio, with approximately 170 bats found in these areas. That’s the state’s population.

Johnson described this decline as “catastrophic.”

”There’s lots of concerns for regional extinctions or species-wide extinctions,” he explained.

The bats experience the greatest risk during the winter months when they hibernate. White-nose syndrome is a fungus that affects the animals when they are in close quarters for extended periods of time, like during hibernation. Part of BatLab’s research has been to locate remnant populations of bats who have not succumbed to the disease and determine if there is a habitat relationship.

“I try and find the survivors,” Johnson said. “I try and figure out why they’re surviving and how to protect them.”

Unfortunately, most of the current knowledge on bat winter ecology, physiology and behavior comes from a small number of species. 

“When we talk about hibernation, we talk about what we know from that species perspective, but that’s plain biased for a group so diverse, it’s humorous to not know more,” Johnson observed. 

Furthermore, some species are notably absent from current knowledge of where bats go for winter hibernation. 

Answering these questions is not easy, and often involves long intervals of waiting interspersed with active overnight expeditions. To obtain the data they need, Johnson and his students must first catch the bats they want to study, and then put a radio transmitter on them. The only issue is that this signal disappears underground, so it becomes a race from the point of release to track the animal through the night to discover the hidden places these bats call home.

After finding them, BatLab works to take off additional stressors, which are often human-related. For example, at one of the sites of the few remaining little brown bats in Ohio, locals were found killing them with bee-bee guns, ignorant of the importance of these animals. By putting in bat-friendly grates to let the bats in and keep people from disturbing them, Johnson and his students were able to help even the odds for these animals. He emphasized that other things like artificial roosts, or bat boxes, are great during the summer months because many species depend on a dwindling number of dead trees that are cut down for safety reasons. Cavers also possess a responsibility to follow the decontamination protocol for white-nose before entering these winter habitats.

Johnson warns against framing the issue as an economic one. 

“This field of thought where we need to put a dollar value on something is dangerous because it gives the impression that you are separate from it… that you can just pay for that service, that if we lose the service bats provide us that all we need to do is invest this money, and you know, we can get it back,” Johnson said. “It’s not something that can be replaced with dollars because you are not separate from it.”

When any animal goes extinct, there is a great loss to the world that can never be repaired. Without bats, there is no telling what the repercussions would be. They are key pollinators, and there are certain plant-bat relationships where one cannot survive without the other. Agave is one of these plants that depend on bat pollination. As for insect control, it is possible to suggest bats hold a crucial role, but inaccurate factually. 

There is just no way to know the extent of the role bats play, and more importantly, there shouldn’t have to be a human-crafted reason for a species to retain its right to remain a community member on this planet. Bats are important for their own sake, not just because of whatever role they play that has the potential to benefit human society. The true value of a species often goes unseen until it is demonstrated through the absence that extinction brings. 

Humanity shares an interconnected world. Society does its best to understand this, but these infinite links between our interstellar home and one another are often beyond comprehension. 

But Johnson does know this: “You are nature. You are part of the world, and when part of the world dies, that’s unarguably bad for you.”

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