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Biologist expands bat study region-wide

“We basically know almost nothing about bats in Alaska, and that includes such basic things as what species we have here.” That’s Regional Biologist Karen Blejwas. She has been researching bats in Juneau for 2-years and wants to expand her research region-wide. Her goal is to find out more about the nocturnal creatures, their traveling patterns, and how they compare to bats in the lower Northeast and Midwest states.

“Over the last couple years we have done a lot of acoustic monitoring in the Juneau area. We have bat detectors that pick up echo location calls that can detect species and their movements. We’re able to get a lot of information from that. I want to expand monitoring across Southeast Alaska to get a better idea of what the regional patterns are,” she says.

Blejwas is using acoustic detectors to monitor the ultra-sonic sounds bats make, also known as echolocation calls. The devices are battery powered and can monitor sound unheard by the human ear, as well as record date and time. Blejwas says she used fourteen detectors in Juneau, which gathered some interesting data.

“I’d only ever seen two bats before we started this project. But we started walking trails in the Juneau area, and on the thirty trails we walked we recorded at least one bat or more on every trail. And we confirmed for the first time that we have silver hair bats, not necessarily in high densities but they are found,” she says.

Expanding her research, Blejwas will be working with communities such as Ketchikan, Skagway, Gustavus, Craig, Sitka, and Wrangell. Forest Service staffers are helping.

“We are trying to figure out anything we can about bats in Southeast Alaska.” That’s Joe Delabrue; he works as a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service in Wrangell. The agency will be in charge of monitoring the acoustic detectors over the next year.

Delabrue says Alaska bats are still a bit of a mystery. But he hopes this study might help biologists get a better idea of how Alaska bats will fare from a disease known as the “white nose syndrome,” which has killed millions of bats in the Lower-48.

“I think this is our opportunity to find out what we have here in Southeast Alaska so we can monitor when or if the white nose syndrome ever comes up this way,” he says.

The syndrome is a fungus found in a bat’s nose, causing them to die during hibernation. Regional Biologist Karen Blejwas says the white nose syndrome appeared on the scene in 2006 and since has killed between 5.7 and 6.7 million bats in the Northeast and Midwest.

“We do seem to be figuring out that they don’t hibernate in huge numbers like they do back east. This could be good news for our western bats. Because they’re not hibernating in these large numbers or it could be just mean it’s harder for us to detect the disease and what impact it has on the bats,” she says.

Blejwas hopes the regional data collected will give biologists a better idea of bat species and population trends in Alaska, as well as further studies of rabies in bats and their potential effects on humans. Blejwas will be working with Wrangell’s Forest Service later this month to install the detectors.

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