“Batting around career options in Nebraska”
For master’s student Christopher Fill, coming to the University of Nebraska was a “bat decision.”
He had worked with bats as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, but since graduating with a biology degree, he had been unable to find a permanent position. After he had worked a summer job in Nebraska, researching prairie chickens, a former coworker told him that the new National Research Traineeship (NRT) program at Nebraska needed a “bat person.”
“I loved and appreciated the time I had spent working for the University of Nebraska with the prairie chickens and was excited to return to the state,” Fill said.
The NRT position would allow him to further his education with a master’s degree besides providing him two years of paid work with wildlife. He applied and was accepted. Now people are asking the Massachusetts native how he found a job in Nebraska.
“I like to say the bats found me,” Fill says. “I hadn’t necessarily been looking for them.”
He is now though. His position involves discovering how abundant bats are on farmlands and how they use the fields when out of hibernation.
“I’m putting out detectors on farmlands,” Fill explains. “You won’t know the number of bats, but based on the amount of calls, you can determine bat activity, and if you get quality calls, you can actually identify a species based off its call.”
Bats navigate at night through what’s called “echolocation.” They emit high-frequency sounds, or “calls,” and based off the sounds coming back to them, can read their environment. The recorder Fill uses picks up the ultrasonic signals and displays them as call files.
“Once they want more information about something, an insect for instance, they’ll start echolocating faster, and you’ll get what’s called ‘feeding buzzes.’ So, you can interpret what the bat’s doing,” Fill says.
Bats help farmers by eating insects.
“They can eat up to twice their body weight in insects, and some studies estimate that bats save farmers more than 3.7 billion dollars a year for crop damage,” Fill says.
Because of that, scientists in some states are especially concerned about bat populations. A fungus thought to have been brought over from Europe to New York has been spreading across the United States and is decimating bats. The fungus appears as a white fluff on the bats’ nose, and hence, the disease is called “white nose syndrome.”
Fill and Craig Allen, director of the NRT program, are putting out detectors to verify the abundance of Nebraska’s bats, how they might be using farmlands, and how best to sustain them and their benefit to farmers and the food supply.
“Bats do not use all landscapes the same,” Fill says. “A wide open cornfield provides less cover, and it takes more energy to fly farther. It’s pretty well established that bats like forests and trees and water, so we want to see if, how, and why they are using entire fields.”
This is the type of biological and ecological research Fill had been interested in but not able to find before.
“No one at UM was majoring in this,” Fill says. “They were all going on to med school or whatnot, so I was more alone. I just kind of stayed in my own corner. Here, it’s much different. There are so many people who are studying wildlife and natural resources and different courses, and so, all of that information, the wealth of information and different resources out here, I really never had before.”
Fill is considering using his degree to work in wildlife biology, conservation, or management.
“I’m not exactly sure what I will do, but this is a good place to start finding out,” he says.
Apparently, good things come out of bat decisions.
— Ronica Stromberg, National Research Traineeship Program Coordinator