Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Computer tracks rare species easier

The Associated Press

        SALT LICK — Computer equipment that Eric Britzke lugs into the Daniel Boone National Forest might become a valuable tool in tracking Indiana bats, an elusive species whose shrinking numbers worry scientists.

        Mr. Britzke has netted just two of the mouse-size bats, but he has recorded a number of others on computer equipment.

        Other researchers have used the bat-detector equipment with varying results, said Tom Biebighauser, a Forest Service wildlife biologist. He said Mr. Britzke is at the forefront of mastering the technology.

        Standing on a dark mountaintop gravel road, Mr. Britzke tapped on the computer's keyboard and detected several bats he couldn't see or hear.

        “There's a red bat,” he said. “There's another. That's a northern long-eared.”

        Mr. Britzke wasn't looking at pictures; it was squiggly lines that are the cutting edge in bat detection. The lines were visual representations of the echolocation, or sonar calls, that bats use to navigate or to find insect prey in the dark.

        He had 1,500 bat calls stored in computer files. He captures the sounds with a small bat detector, which is attached to old laptops. He attaches the computers to marine batteries before dusk and leaves them to record bat activity through the night.

        Mr. Britzke said the technology, developed in Australia, can help to study the Indiana bat, whose decline has stopped or delayed construction projects that threaten its habitat.

        Experts believe there once were millions of the flying mammals nationwide. The latest estimates put their numbers about 250,000, about 45,000 of them in Kentucky.

        “They're declining so rapidly, and no one knows why,” said Mr. Britzke, a Tennessee Technological University graduate student. “We've protected the winter habitat. We're saying, "OK, what about the summer habitat?”'

        When Mr. Britzke catches a bat, he attaches a tiny light for identification, releases the bat and then records it.

        “You have to wait until he calms down and begins echolocating normally,” he said. “If someone picked you up and tied you in a pillowcase and threw you out into a room, they wouldn't use your voice at that moment for voice identification.”

        Britzke's research has turned up a lot of information about bats. Despite what some had thought, they are out on moonlit nights — when they probably are better able to see and avoid nets — and they seem to prefer feeding in open forests that have been logged.


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