Last updated: October 9, 2015
There are a lot of reasons to love bats. Their fuzzy adorable bodies, their squeaking, the adorably stout noses on pointy muzzles, and the gracefulness of their flight are only a few of the reasons. Before this summer, I had never experienced, observed, or held a bat in person. Luckily, Klondike Gold Rush NHP is partnering with University of Alaska-Fairbanks to monitor bat activity in Skagway and Dyea. After getting rabies shots and training at the beginning of the season, I was itching to go out and catch some bats. When Jonathan Fiely (our bat guy from UAF) arrived, I was over the moon. We quickly got to work on the project and I held my very first bat soon after.
I admired their traits beforehand, but as I got more acquainted with the bats around Skagway I gained much more appreciation for the little creatures. Their wings are fascinating. Delicate bones are compensated with an incredible flexibity. The thin membrane covering their wings is stretchy and a curious combination of soft but smooth. Light dots and lines spot across some of the bats wings. These lighter patches are scars. The membrane can take an incredible about of punctures and scarring, yet it retains its quick-healing properties.
Unfortunately many bat populations in North America can’t recover from the latest threat. White nose syndrome is a fungal disease of debated origin that affects bats. Thousands of bats in the New England area have died from the disease. As the affliction continues to spread westward, fatalities are rising and threaten the survival of some bat species. Many scientists are attempting to find a solution, but as of yet nothing has been solved.
What does this disease have to do with Alaskan bats? Or Skagway in particular? There is concern that eventually white nose syndrome will arrive in Alaska. The presence of it would be devastating to the population. However, we don’t know exactly how devastating because there hasn’t been much research done on bats in Alaska. Research on Alaskan bats has almost become a race to collect as much information as possible before the population is reduced.
One method of studying creatures is by tracking their movements, also known as telemetry. The migration or non-migration of bats is a key research question right now. Very little is known of their patterns and movements in Alaska and the North. By tagging bats, we can track exactly where they go and figure out if they migrate and where they go. This also ties in with white nose syndrome because bats migrating between Alaska and Washington could mean a much quicker entry of the fungus into the bat population of Alaska. The tiny, lightweight tracking mechanism shown below will help us with this information.
Being part of this push to understand bats and try to save them is very rewarding. Every recorded, tagged, and caught bat is new and exciting information both locally and statewide. New science and adorable, interesting animals all in one fell swoop – a winning combination!