Notes from the Field: Project Launched to Monitor Wild Bats at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is going to bat for a misunderstood species.

Contrary to what pop culture would have you believe, bats are critically important to the environment. They are considered to be essential pollinators in some parts of the world. They also help control populations of insects including mosquitos – which can spread diseases to humans and other animals – and moths, which can significantly damage crops.

In fact, bats are said to save U.S. farmers more than $3 billion a year in agricultural production, according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), which kicked off Bat Conservation Week (October 24-31) by announcing $1.36 million in grants to find a cure for a disease that is threatening several species of bats. Known as white-nose syndrome, this disease has wiped out more than 6 million bats in North America in the past decade.

The Detroit Zoological Society supports Bat Conservation International (BCI), one of the beneficiaries of the NFWF grant, which is not only working to conserve endangered species of bats, but also to preserve bat “hot spots” around the world and launch a global bat database for the more than 1,300 species of bats existing on the planet.

The DZS is committed to the conservation of bats, and supporting BCI is one part of a comprehensive plan. Staff is engaged in a bat monitoring project to determine which of the nine species of bats native to Michigan are using the Detroit Zoo as a wild habitat. An acoustic monitor senses the ultrasonic bat calls and creates a graph showing the frequency and characteristics of the calls. This system also changes the frequency so the calls can be heard by human ears. In addition to documenting which species are present, staff will also be able to determine what behaviors the bats are engaged in while making the calls, such as feeding or socializing. This project will also explore which species migrate from the Zoo during the winter.

Plans are also beginning to turn the former Penguinarium at the Detroit Zoo into a bat conservation center.

Notes from the Field – Bats and Frogs in Peru Part II

Buenos dias from Lima, Peru.  I’ve been here for two weeks with the Detroit Zoological Society’s curator of amphibians, Marcy Sieggreen, to visit the sites being used for our amphibian conservation studies and to investigate the potential for bat conservation projects. It’s been a wonderful and productive trip.

One of our last trips into the rivers and flooded forests started with a little drama but thankfully ended well:  It was 6 a.m. and the sun was rising when Marcy and I climbed into the dug-out canoe with our local guide. These dug-out canoes are carved out of single tree trunks, and they ride very low in the water. I also knew from previous experience that these canoes often let in a little bit of water. But this was a little more than “a little” and right after we left the dock, I informed our guide that a pretty steady stream of water was coming in. He and Marcy laughed and told me to finish my coffee and start bailing out water, which I promptly did. But as the water rose to several inches, we decided it best to turn around and made it back before a morning swim with the piranhas.

We soon found another boat and continued our trip into the forest and observed squirrel monkeys and dusky titi monkeys feeding in the trees. Since I’d already seen both the saddle-backed and black-mantled tamarin monkeys, I was thrilled to see a total of four monkey species during the trip. I also consistently saw new bird species such as the hoatzin – interestingly, the young chicks have claws to climb in trees. We also saw a variety of other interesting wildlife such as tree iguanas, snakes, and three-toed sloths.

I had the chance to join Marcy on some boat trips just after sunset to look for frogs at the edge of rivers/lakes and in floating vegetation. We saw so many that Marcy could barely keep up her documentation as we called out the frogs we saw.  We saw some fishing bats on these trips too.

I also had the chance to meet with a Peruvian bat researcher to discuss a potential collaboration in bat conservation projects.  We had a great meeting, and I think there will be opportunities to get baseline data on bat diversity and the importance of bats as seed dispersers.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Editor’s note: Marcy Sieggreen was the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society from 2008 until her passing in 2016. The Detroit Zoological Society established the Sieggreen Amphibian Conservation Fund in Marcy’s memory to continue to advance the work she so passionately championed.

Notes from the Field: Bats and Frogs in Peru

Buenos dias from northeastern Peru. Paul and Marcy in PeruI’ve been here for several days with Marcy Sieggreen, the Detroit Zoological Society’s Curator of Amphibians, to investigate the potential for bat conservation projects and to see the sites being used for our amphibian conservation studies. There was a quick turn around from my work with snow leopards in China – I left Detroit less than a week after returning from the chilly mountains of China, so I was looking forward to the 80-degree temperatures of the tropics. I was thrilled to visit Peru for the first time, and it’s been a wonderful and productive trip thus far.

Our first stop was the city of Iquitos on the banks of the Amazon River to meet with a Peruvian researcher. We had a very productive meeting discussing the potential for bat baseline inventories and the availability of weather data. These data on temperature, rainfall and other factors will be essential to better understanding changes in the amphibian diversity.

Next, we headed up the Amazon and Napo Rivers. Although bats are the focus of my trip, it was great to have the opportunity to see pink river dolphins. Because it is the high water season we were able to visit the flooded forest to see an overwhelming diversity of birds including Amazonian umbrella birds, kingfishers, toucans and even ospreys which also live in Michigan.

Bats seem to be common here, flying in our rooms and flying by our faces on night walks to find frogs and toads. During these night walks I have definitely gained a new respect for the work of amphibian researchers. I am used to walking transects slowly – perhaps 1 kilometer per hour to sight monkeys or look for deer and/or carnivore tracks or scat. But the amphibian pace seemed glacial at first – at a clip of 1 kilometer in four or five hours – because the well-camouflaged frogs and toads are hard to find.

When a frog or toad is found, the delicate dance begins. My task is to catch the squirmy frog and hold it ever-so-gently so Marcy can rub a cotton swab on its belly and feet to test for chytrid fungus – a fungus that has been devastating amphibian populations in many parts of the world.

Between frog finds we can enjoy the incredible diversity of tarantulas and other spiders as well as insects such as katydids, walking sticks and even a beetle that lights up like a lightning bug.

I’ll be here for several more days, visiting more sites and searching for frogs in the flooded forests. I’m also meeting with a Peruvian bat researcher about the potential for future collaboration before returning to Detroit.

Hasta luego!

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Editor’s note: Marcy Sieggreen was the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society from 2008 until her passing in 2016. The Detroit Zoological Society established the Sieggreen Amphibian Conservation Fund in Marcy’s memory to continue to advance the work she so passionately championed.