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For Karen Campbell, Ph.D.,
Bruce Wayne was so taken with the fearsome reputation of bats—menacing, winged, fanged, blood thirsty, screeching bats—that he took on their form to strike terror in the hearts of Gotham City's criminals.
Unlike Batman creator Bob Kane and the Hollywood screenwriters who brought the Caped Crusader to life, Karen A. Campbell, Ph.D., the P. Kenneth Nase, M.D. '55, chair of biology,
Campbell travels far and wide researching bats, from Australia to Canada to much of the eastern and midwestern United States, catching, recording data on and tracking many species of these "marvelous" creatures. She's planning a trip to Costa Rica this summer to attend the 16th International Bat Research Conference and the 43rd North American Symposium on Bat Research (NASBR).
Bat species are varied, according to Campbell, coming in lots of sizes and living virtually all over the globe.
"The largest bat in Pennsylvania is the hoary bat, with a wingspan that is about 35 to 40 cm [15 to 16 inches]," she enthuses. "These bats fly high and fast over the treetops, however, and so are rarely the creatures that visit us inside our houses. Those bats typically have a wingspan that is only about 15 cm [6 to 7 inches]."
She continues with ebullience, "Fruit bats live in tropical regions and are often considerably larger. The adult flying foxes that we studied in Australia had a wingspan that was almost 1.5 m [five feet]! WAY cool."
Since joining the biology department at Albright in 1989, Campbell has been deeply involved with the collaborative process of the
"I had one student who was putting radio transmitters on bats and following them to see what their activity was like," Campbell says. "I had a student who was gathering hair samples from bats and did a really early DNA-based project looking to see if he could identify DNA sequences that would allow us to determine relationships between the bats. It was very collaborative in lots of different ways, because fieldwork demands a lot of help, and so we all helped each other with the different projects."
According to Campbell, when you do bat research, you spend a lot of time at night, walking around in the dark—especially as it's just getting dark—and observing from where bats are emerging. The Albright team found a couple of big colonies in a church and a fire hall and learned, much to the dismay of homeowners, that there were a lot of bats roosting in the slate-roofed houses in the area.
The primary means of their surveying was the use of "mist nets"—large nets that extend 30 feet up into the air and are 20 to 30 feet across—to catch the bats as they flew from their roost and along their routine route to feed. This enabled the researchers to capture bats and record data (species, age, sex, etc.) and band the bats for future reference before releasing them.
"It's an interesting process…and there's a lot of teamwork that's involved in doing that kind of work. Not just in the physical labor of it, but you spend a lot of time wandering around and checking the nets…and playing Uno in-between checking the nets," laughs Campbell. "It's science and research, but it's also camaraderie."
The Albright bat team determined there were no endangered species of bats—specifically the Indiana bat—present at the Delaware Water Gap, though many other bat species were found there. They learned much about bats' foraging behavior; the young bats fed closer to the trails and paths in the park, while older bats liked to feed over the Delaware River. They also learned about the roosting and foraging behaviors of several difficult-to-study bat species, including the red bat and northern long-eared bat, because these animals roost in trees rather than attics, and so they are more difficult to find. The Albright students presented the results of their projects at the NASBR, held that year in Tucson, Ariz.
Although a large quantity of bats and several bat species were surveyed at the Delaware Water Gap during Campbell's 1997-1998 field study, that may no longer be the case today, with the deadly White-nose syndrome afflicting the bat populations of eastern North America. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North American bat death toll exceeds 5.5 million since the disease was first documented in New York in 2006.
Studying this is Albright alumnus Chris Hauer '12, a former student of Campbell's and now a graduate student at East Stroudsburg University. Fifteen years on, he is replicating Campbell's Delaware Water Gap survey study. Hauer's thesis,"The Assessment of the Community Structure of Bats in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Following the Emergence of White-Nose Syndrome," will include field and laboratory research. He will be monitoring the same sites that Campbell studied and noting any changes in species composition and if activity has decreased since White-nose syndrome hit. A preliminary study at one of the sites has shown a"pretty drastic drop off," according to Hauer. "Dr. Campbell found 2,500 to 3,000 bats [in 1997],"
Campbell spends much of her time researching the winged mammals, but she also teaches a full load of biology classes and is a sought-after professor among students at Albright. Most recently, she co-authored a textbook, Integrative Animal Biology. Hauer, while an undergraduate student at Albright, was part of the student editorial board that reviewed and provided feedback to the authors, chapter by chapter. Interestingly the book's main author, M. Brock Fenton, Ph.D., professor of biology at the University of Western Ontario and one of the world's foremost authorities on bats, was the person who initially introduced Campbell to bat research, during her undergraduate days in Canada, 30-plus years ago.
Like the bats Campbell studies, it's as if she's returned to the roost herself.
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