Student Forum - Viive
My Path to Study Northern Long-Eared Bats
All I needed was a class to fill my B period for the second semester of my junior year at Newburyport High School. I had heard some of my classmates talking about their internships and how much they enjoyed working alongside their favorite teachers. My impression of what a high school internship would involve included students helping a teacher of their choice with an existing class, organizing, overseeing students, or helping to teach. When it came to February of this year and my internship class was introduced, I immediately knew which teacher I wanted to shadow.
Dr. Hobbs was my biology teacher during my freshman year. We were her last class of the day every Friday, the last hour of school before the weekend. Needless to say, as students anxious for the closing bell, we were not always as focused as we should have been. But despite that, I truly admired Dr. Hobbs's consistent excitement and passion for science, which I soon began to find in myself as well. At first, I thought I would be helping clean fish tanks and feeding her turtles, but Dr. Hobbs had another idea. She suggested a research project she was starting with Dr. Terry at The Gulf of Maine Institute, which required an intern. I had just returned from a semester abroad program in the Bahamas called The Island School. I spent 100 days at The Island School in the Fall of 2021 conducting research alongside a Ph.D. student on the Caribbean Spiny Lobster's feasibility for aquaculture. This is when I found my enthusiasm for hands-on, real-world research. So, when Dr. Hobbs asked if I would help her and The Gulf of Maine Institute, it was an easy answer.
Soon after, we began plotting times to meet during the week and organized a zoom call with Dr. Terry to distinguish our goals for the project. In the meantime, I showed up in her classroom during her B block biology class and did some preliminary research about what I knew the internship would be at that point. Dr. Terry and I set up a zoom call so that he could ensure I was a good fit for the project, and before I knew it, we were talking about my role as its intern. After an exciting discussion, we decided that I would survey bird species on Plum Island. Once I discovered which birds came when and researching their population status, we would build artificial cavities, almost like birdhouses, to support and more closely monitor those species that needed help.
I got to work! During the class time in Dr. Hobbs' room, I began creating an organizer to fit all of my research into one document. At this point, I had visited almost every page on the Mass Audubon website and read the name of every bird that had ever stepped foot in Newburyport. My document was so long that it took the first five minutes of class just to load onto my laptop screen. Once I felt like I had a good amount of research and some questions I couldn't find the answer to on my own, Dr. Terry introduced me to Nancy Pau at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Newbury. She has extensive knowledge and experience with birds and would be an important contact for us during research. I reached out to her with questions and advice for our project. Unfortunately, she wasn't in her office but still found a way to reply to me in less than 48 hours! Little did we know that her response would change the direction of our research. She first showed her appreciation for our concern and enthusiasm about local suffering bird species. Then, however, she pointed out that a different group already makes cavities for what we discovered was our target species: the Purple Martin. She gently advised that we do not build boxes for other species since there is evidence that they may not attract them and can even encourage disease. Rather than leaving it at that, she also suggested that a different flying animal might better fit our project: bats.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Northern Long-Eared Bat, a bat species native to New England, is in a proposal to be listed as endangered by the end of 2022. They face a significant obstacle that has caused a 95% loss in population over the last ten years, known as White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), which appears as a white fungus on the bat's nose. It has been seen to infect and later kill 90% of each hibernaculum. Thankfully, the fungus killing the bats cannot infect a human or most other species because our body temperature is much higher than the temperature the fungi can survive in. The technical cause of death for bats infected with WNS is starvation, not the disease itself. When the bats hibernate, and their body temperature is lower than usual, it becomes easier for WNS to infect them. When infected, the bats wake up much more frequently, which uses their energy and causes starvation before leaving hibernation.
Once we learned our bird project would not be as successful as we thought, we realized that bats might have been the better focus in the first place. Like our initial bird survey goal, the larger purpose of our current bat project is to revive the Northern Long-Eared bat population, which has been declining at a dangerous rate. In addition, it could tie into an Environmental Field Studies course that Dr. Hobbs teaches at the high school. She suggested that this project could be a part of the curriculum and would give her students a feel for field research at their own high school.
After consulting one another and talking about the potential of a bat project rather than a bird project, we decided to officially change directions, and I got back to researching. I created spreadsheets, took long notes, and watched almost every video on the internet that had to do with bats. Eventually, I came across a study by researchers in West Virginia, another region these bats reside in. Their study tested three different models of bat boxes organized by size: a small, single chamber "rocket box," a slightly larger double chamber box, and a "nursery" four-chamber box. The boxes seemed fairly straightforward in terms of construction and like something we could recreate. Then I looked at the very impressive occupancy numbers which persuaded me to follow the project even more. I talked to Dr. Hobbs, and she felt the same way. Excited about the potential of replicating the project, I emailed the researchers that created it. Similar to Nancy Pau, they responded very quickly, eager to help someone as passionate about bats as them. I attached Google Earth images of Newburyport High School in my email, where we would hope to install the boxes, asking if these locations would be feasible. I also queried if they had any advice on building in a different region. Their responses were thorough and helpful. With all of our information, new and old, we decided that we could replicate these bat roosts. They would provide a safe alternative to the bats usual roosting locations which could be infected with White-Nose Syndrome.
Where would we be able to find the materials to build the boxes before the summer, and who would do it? That's when I remembered Mr. Balkus, my Tech Ed teacher at the Nock Middle School. His class had been another of my favorites, and I even got a book award from him in eighth grade, so I knew he'd be happy to help. Excited maybe to be working with him again, I emailed to see if he would be interested in helping us, to which he replied in agreement. He has a large workshop at the Nock Middle School and all the necessary materials to start building. Summer is when they are known to have the highest roosting rates, so time was of the essence. With the help of some of his middle school students, he built two nursery boxes and a rocket box which we are looking to install very soon at the high school!
This project will be a unique experience and has the potential to be very successful as part of Dr. Hobbs's Environmental Field Studies class. It has only been possible because of the inspiring, passionate people it has involved. Dr. Terry, Dr. Hobbs, and Mr. Balkus are incredible teachers and share an unmatched passion for science. Getting the chance to communicate with Nancy Pau and the researchers for the West Virginia project has taught me about the importance of a collaborative scientific community. My high school principal, Mr. Wulf has also been a vital resource and has supported the project since we started. Working with passionate people for an important cause has been something I will forever remember and be grateful for.
Additionally, this internship has opened my eyes to the importance of a species I had never heard about. If it weren't for Ms. Pau's response, we would not have known about the fungi that have killed more than 95% of a species living in our backyard (and attics!). We could have unsuccessfully set up birdhouses for a population of birds that didn't necessarily need our help. Now focusing on bats, we have the potential to find a cure to a fatal disease that could spread to many more important species and dramatically impact our already suffering biodiversity.
Once our artificial roosts are sufficiently occupied, and we have collected data, another report will be posted in a later issue of this journal. I look forward to the future of our project and a detailed update!
Viive is a junior at Newburyport High School and has lived in Newburyport all her life. Growing up on the coast, she has always been passionate about nature and curious about the world around her. She has been going to a summer sleep-away camp on Lake Ossipee for nine years now and loves to go on hikes, surf, ski and spend as much time outdoors as she can. She is the Newburyport varsity volleyball captain and she participates in high jump and triple jump for her school’s varsity track team. This past fall, Viive graduated from a semester abroad program called The Island School in Eleuthera, Bahamas. With fifty other high school students her age and a dozen passionate teachers, she spent 100 days without internet, learning methods of sustainability and conducting hands-on research. She does not yet know where she will be attending college in 2023, but she hopes to pursue a path that will lead her to make a difference in rescuing our planet.