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Restoring Bat Habitats

by Heidi Bright Parales

About 150 new shelters for homeless tree-roosting bats have been created in the Daniel Boone National Forest in a concerted attempt to restore their habitat.

The endangered Indiana bat and the northern bat prefer above-ground habitats in older-growth forests with snags (standing dead trees), rather than cave dwellings, during the summer months. Because a significant number of the bats' forest homes have been destroyed, University of Kentucky researchers are assisting with a bat box program to provide substitute homes for these species.

As an endangered species, the Indiana bat faces an immediate threat of extinction because not enough bats are born to replace those that die. For several years, the entire population of Indiana bats has continued to rapidly decline, says Mike Lacki, associate professor of wildlife ecology in the UK College of Agriculture.

Lacki and forestry graduate student Jeff Schwierjohann have been studying the above-ground habitat requirements of these bats. Lacki says, "We try to identify what habitats are more suitable for bats, and try to determine where they feed and what they feed on. Results from completed projects on the Virginia big-eared bat and Rafinesque's big-eared bat have contributed to the management protocol for the bats in the Daniel Boone National Forest."

Lacki says he has worked extensively with several resource agencies in Kentucky and shares his research findings with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the Nature Conservancy, and the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.

Lacki's goal this summer is to analyze the placement locations for the 150 bat boxes in the Daniel Boone National Forest-which ones were occupied, and whether single male bats or maternity colonies occupied the homes. Currently, Lacki and Schwierjohann are analyzing data from natural roosts for patterns.

These bats are important to the ecology of the area, according to Lacki. "Bats are the primary night-flying predators of insects. In the temperate zone, most bats feed exclusively on insects. They decrease the overall impact of agricultural pests such as beetles and moths. Several bat species eat these pests in the adult stage, thereby reducing the numbers in the larval, or pest stage. This way, bats provide important ecological controls."

As important as bats are to the state's ecology, they are difficult to study. "They are hard to observe because they are active at night and we can't see them directly when they are foraging," Lacki says. Researchers can tag the bats with transmitters or luminescent tags, but these techniques still provide limited visual perception of what the bats are doing.

"What probably intrigues me most about bats is how little we really know about them," he says.

Lacki's master's thesis at Ohio State University involved a survey of bats in Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio. He says he enjoyed the project, but went on to study other animal species to broaden his background.

Following his doctorate in zoology at North Carolina State University, Lacki held positions at various universities until he was offered the position at UK in 1989. Upon arrival, he immediately accepted a contract from the U.S. Forest Service to evaluate the habitat of the endangered Virginia big-eared bat. "The fit was perfect and I never looked back," Lacki says. To date, he has studied the habitats of five of the 14 species of bats in Kentucky.