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The author examines a large brown bat.

Photo courtesy Jordyn Chace

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NORTHEASTERN MISSOURI – The sun was just dipping below the horizon and the warm spring air mixes with the stone-cooled currents pouring out of the mine entrances. The nets are all hung up and now we’re just waiting for the bats to appear. This is my first trip with fog nets but I have been warned that this will not be a typical experience.

Several researchers set up poles to hang a fog net near a mine entrance.

The researchers hang up a fog net in the early evening.

Photo by Jordyn Chace

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My colleagues and I partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a population genomics assessment of the endangered Indiana bats that live in this mine. But we are not alone. Because this species is rare and study options are limited, we share our scope of work with the US Forest Service, the Missouri Bat Census, and several other academics, agencies, and conservation groups. Everyone here has their own priorities, research questions and goals, but we all have a common goal: to protect these special animals.

A recently released bat clings to a white cloth.

A recent bat wants to hang out a bit.

Photo by Sarah Gaulke

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White nose syndrome, a deadly and devastating fungal disease, is a constant threat to bats. Therefore, we take the usual precautionary measures such as wearing protective suits and following strict decontamination protocols to prevent the infection from spreading. We also need to be careful not to transmit COVID-19 to these endangered animals. In addition to being tested as part of the university’s SHIELD program, we were trained and equipped on N-95 respirators. My grandmother is very concerned that I will get sick from these stigmatized animals, but I am much more concerned about the spread of diseases to their already dwindling populations.

Four researchers in their protective clothing stand together near their construction site.

From left, Illinois mammologist Jocelyn Karsk, PhD student Sarah Gaulke, PhD student Jordyn Chace and INHS mammologist Brittany Rogness are suitable for the evening.

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Our team is led by mammologist Brittany Rogness from the Illinois Natural History Survey. She has been looking for Indiana bats for more than three years, and tonight they fill the twilight skies above us. I can tell from the energy of my colleagues that this is a meaningful night.

My role tonight is at the processing table. Bats are now emerging from the mouths of the mine and some are trapped in our fog nets. The handlers carefully remove the floating bats from the paper-thin nets and place each one in a paper bag to keep them calm, safe and protected. Runners bring me the bags at the processing table.

Experts like Rogness have years of experience working with these delicate creatures. She carefully examines each bat to identify the species and assess its size, weight, gender, and health. I write everything on the data sheet.

A released large brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus, clings to a tree.

A released large brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus, clings to a tree.

Photo by Sarah Gaulke

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If everything looks good, Rogness extends a wing and I put a small biopsy stamp in the wing to take a tiny sample of tissue. The bat’s wing heals quickly, but this little piece of tissue is essential to our work.

Researchers take a tissue sample.  Description in the text.

Sarah Gaulke and Brittany Rogness take a tissue sample.

Photo by Jordyn Chace

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After a short thank you to the bat, we release it. You are free to fly into the night and grab a bug snack for the street.

With all of the intimidation and preparation up to that night, I’d set up the bats to be something dramatic – even terrifying – on my mind, but since I’m in my hand, the bats are smaller and cuter than I expected. They are blurry.

As soon as I put the sample in the test tube filled with ethanol, I quickly decontaminate every surface of our work table and we change our gloves. We take great care that everything stays clean with every bat that visits our station.

The researcher in full protective gear holds a brown bat in her gloved hand.

Sarah Gaulke is holding a large brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus.

Photo by Jordyn Chace

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When I was planning that night, I was optimistic about preparing 350 test tubes for our samples, but I never thought we would collect more than 50 samples. At the end of the trip, we collected almost 200 tissue samples – an undeniable success.

I trained in population genomics and now, with all of these samples in hand, there are so many questions we can ask and answer about the population in this mine. Modern conservation biology requires collecting as much relevant data as possible and quickly learning from it in order to make quick and effective conservation decisions. Conservation genomics provides us with a toolkit that allows us to learn more about populations after just a few nights of data collection, compared to traditional surveys that can require years of observation.

The researchers wear white overalls, masks, rubber boots and gloves.

Doctoral student Sarah Gaulke and mammologist Brittany Rogness from the Illinois Natural History Survey in their evening gear.

Photo by Jordyn Chace

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At the INHS Collaborative Ecological Genetics Lab, I will work with my team to understand the population structure of these bats. If we see that this hibernaculum is well mixed with the surrounding populations and genetically diverse, we can recommend very different protection plans than if it is genetically more isolated.

The night is over and I look around one last time to take it all in. My friends look like aliens in their white suits with bright headlights covering their faces. In fact, the whole night was a little strange, pushing me way out of my comfort zone from the COVID-19 era to do something completely new to myself, but I can honestly say I can’t wait to do it again.

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