Returns from the Dark Night

Bat species distribution map for Lincoln Park Zoo's Partners in Fieldwork program

The five Chicago high schools participating in the Partners in Fieldwork program detected four native bat species as shown in this distribution map.

Collecting Clues on a Nocturnal Winged Prowler

What's flapping overhead? At five urban institutions, researchers recently pored over data collected from rooftop devices detecting bats in the evening skies.

No, this wasn’t Gotham City and the signal hadn’t been sent up by Commissioner Gordon. These were high school students enrolled in Partners in Fieldwork, a community-outreach science-education initiative launched last year by Lincoln Park Zoo.

The school-year-long program teamed students at five Chicago high schools with field biologists at the zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute (UWI)—opening teens’ eyes to the impressive biodiversity of species in the Chicago area. They’d already collected camera-trap images of urban wildlife (such as striped skunks and opossums) roaming near their schools. They’d catalogued downy woodpeckers, chimney swifts and black-capped chickadees using point-count methods along nearby mapped transects. In the program’s final phase, the goal shifted to winged mammals.

Bat acoustic recording monitor on school rooftop

High school students in the zoo’s Partners in Fieldwork program tracked bat species using specialized acoustic recording devices positioned on school rooftops.

Matthew Mulligan, the program’s coordinator, found himself in some unusual locations during the tech setup. “Never thought I’d be climbing around school rooftops for this job,” says Mulligan, Research Facilitator for the zoo’s Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration, which created the program. “But that’s where the devices needed to go. Tree branches would have been too unstable.”

The small box-shaped devices, wired to boom-pole-mounted microphones, are specialized acoustic recorders UWI scientists use to monitor bat calls. These echolocation signals help bats navigate, but their ultrasonic frequencies lie beyond the range of human hearing.

Mulligan, enlisting the help of each school’s facilities manager, set up the devices in two three-day periods in March and April. He wondered if unpredictable weather patterns would keep native bats from leaving their hibernating locations in caves, mines, abandoned buildings, attics and hollow trees. “Typically, researchers set these up in May,” he says, “so we were excited to actually get calls.”

Program participants and their families enjoyed bird watching during Partners in Fieldwork family day at Lincoln Park Zoo

Program participants and Urban Wildlife Institute interns observed birds at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo during a special family day in May.

Using software called Sonobat that converts audio recordings to sonograms showing bands across the frequency spectrum, Mulligan, teachers and students could figure out which bat species they’d picked up.

Ravenswood’s Amundsen High School detected silver-haired bats, hoary bats and eastern red bats. The West Side’s Manley Career Academy High School and Providence St. Mel School also discovered big brown bats were flapping and flitting overhead. The two other participating high schools—Taft on the far Northwest Side and George Washington on the far South Side—picked up silver-haired bats and eastern red bats.

Students learned about these species’ migratory patterns, how they forage for moths and other insects using echolocation, and how white-nose syndrome—caused by a fungus that infects the muzzle, ears and wings of hibernating bats—has recently decimated millions of bats from the northeastern to the central United States.

Urban Wildlife Institute's Liza Watson Lehrer and Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley discuss camera trap images during Partners in Fieldwork family day at Lincoln Park Zoo

As part of the family day festivities, Urban Wildlife Institute’s Liza Watson Lehrer and Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley look at camera trap photos of nocturnal animals taken by UWI researchers and Partners in Fieldwork high school classes.

Yet their initial reaction at the start of this program phase was always the same: “We have bats here?”

“Those sorts of realizations characterized the entire program,” says Mulligan. “It was gratifying to see students realize wildlife isn’t just African animals—it’s all around them even in the city.” The program also spurred wider community awareness as many students shared with family members what they’d learned.

Participants and their families celebrated a job well done during a special family day on Saturday, May 10, at the zoo. Mulligan displayed their bat data at Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House. UWI Research Coordinator Liza Watson Lehrer shared camera trap images at Foreman Pavilion. UWI interns—joined by Illinois Representative Mike Quigley—led a bird-watching stroll at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Ultimately, the program may have also shattered another stereotype as well: that of scientists as ultra-serious clinicians in white lab coats. “It made them realize anyone can be a scientist,” says Mulligan.

 

By Craig Keller • Published May 29, 2014


Learn More

Partners in Fieldwork camera trap installation teacher training

Schoolyard Species
Learn how the zoo’s Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration links Chicago high school students with research led by the zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute.

Big brown bat in Illinois

The Bats of Chicago
Of the eight species flying around Chicago, here are five of the usual suspects Urban Wildlife Institute researchers see and hear at night.

Urban Wildlife Institute scientists share how far different animals venture into the city in this infographic produced for Lincoln Park Zoo magazine!

The Wildlife Next Door
Will you see a coyote in your backyard? How about a red fox? Urban Wildlife Institute scientists share how far different animals venture into the city in this infographic produced for Lincoln Park Zoo magazine! (3.2 MB JPG)

Deer, coyotes, opossums—when are urban animals active around Chicago? Urban Wildlife Institute scientists tell us in this special infographic produced for Lincoln Park Zoo magazine!

Visualizing Animal Activity Around the Clock
Deer, coyotes, opossums—when are urban animals active around Chicago? Urban Wildlife Institute scientists tell us in this special infographic produced for Lincoln Park Zoo magazine! (4.8 MB JPG)