BU Researcher Weds Ecology, Computer Vision for $2.4 Million Study on Role of Bats in Ecosystems

Contact: Ann Marie Menting, 617/353-2240 | amenting@bu.edu

(Boston, Mass.) — If corn farmers in south-central Texas go batty in their efforts to prevent corn earworm larvae from eating their crops, Thomas Kunz will be thrilled. He will be equally happy to hear the same about cotton farmers.

Kunz, a professor of biology at Boston University, knows that bats, like the thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats found in caves throughout this region, can help farmers control a catalog of crop-destroying pests. And he wants farmers to know bats are a cost-free, environmentally friendly, pest-control resource just waiting to be of service.

Supported by a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Kunz is about to take his search for data on the “services” of Brazilian free-tailed bats to a new level, one that involves computer vision and economic modeling. In October, Kunz and his multidisciplinary research team will begin a five-year study of the ecologic and economic importance of these creatures to Texas communities and farmers who depend on corn, cotton, and other income crops. Kunz believes it may be the first such study to use computer vision to analyze ecologic data.

“Scientists today increasingly talk about ‘ecosystem services’ when describing the contributions that animals, plants, and microbes make to human environments,” says Kunz. “Bats are natural predators of insects that destroy economically important crops. This is a service with great economic value and makes a strong case for conserving bats in our environment.”

Each day, one Brazilian free-tailed bat — a visitor that migrates annually to Texas and other areas of the southeastern United States — eats up to two-thirds its body weight in corn earworm, cotton bollworm, and tobacco budworm adult insects. Fewer adult insects means fewer insect larvae. It also means a reduction in the use of pesticides, which, to an ecologist and conservation biologist like Kunz, is good news.

Kunz knows that pesticide use, destruction of habitats, and eradication efforts are undermining bat populations throughout the U.S. As an authority on winged mammals and an ecologist dedicated to conserving the diversity of its many species, he has spent his academic career gathering evidence of the integral role this misunderstood creature plays in our world.

“As the ways of doing science have evolved to ever more sophisticated levels,” says University Provost Dennis Berkey, “Tom Kunz has been a consistent innovator and leader, nationally and internationally, in conservation biology research, and especially, research on bat species. This significant award to Kunz and his associates underscores the type of collaboration across disciplines and among institutions that is necessary to attack many important but complex questions in the natural world.”

The research effort is unusual because it brings such a range of scientific expertise to bear on what is essentially a conservation biology study. The multidisciplinary study brings together biologists, computer scientists, ecological economists, ecologists, mathematicians, and meteorologists. Using infrared thermal imaging cameras, Doppler radar, computer-vision software, ultrasonic recording devices, and DNA analysis, this diverse group of researchers will track bat flight patterns, locate caves that house bat colonies, census the region’s Brazilian free-tailed bats using custom-developed computer algorithms for motion tracking, record bat feeding calls, and identify and quantify the insects that bats eat by analyzing the DNA of insect parts found in bat guano.

These data will be analyzed with data mined from state records of crop types, crop yields, pesticides used, and other relevant economic information to build what these researchers expect will be a complete picture of the Brazilian free-tailed bat’s role in the natural ecology and the agroecology of south-central Texas.

“Having an accurate census of these bats is critical to this study,” says Kunz. “Because we’re using infrared thermal imaging cameras, we don’t need light sources to record video images of bats as they leave their caves for nightly feeding. Our use of computer-vision software to count thermal signatures of individuals in these clouds of thousands of bats brings a new dimension to this research and to computer vision itself, improving it as a tool for counting anything that moves, whether for conservation biology or homeland security.”

Joining Kunz as co-principal investigators on this study are Margrit Betke, assistant professor of computer science at Boston University; Gary F. McCracken, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; John K. Westbrook, research leader and meteorologist with USDA/Agricultural Research Service in College Station, Texas; and Patricia Morton, program leader for education in the Wildlife Diversity Branch of Texas Parks and Wildlife. Other scientists who will work on the study as senior research collaborators are Boston University’s Cutler J. Cleveland, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, and Stan Sclaroff, associate professor of computer science; and Thomas G. Hallam, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee.

Boston University, with an enrollment of more than 29,000 in its 17 schools and colleges, is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States.