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Science & Tech

Strange Science: In the Field with BU’s Bat Man

Biologist Thomas Kunz on how flying mammals help us


At Boston University, scientific research isn’t always conducted with beakers and test tubes. This year, students and faculty used pumpkins to learn about physics, created algorithms to count bats, and made fake human tissue designed to withstand radiation on the moon. This week, BU Today is revisiting the year in "strange science" at Boston University.

Although they keep a dignified silence, bats get a raw deal: they are swatted at with brooms and vilified in lore.

In fact, bats are hardworking and useful creatures, and they rarely carry real danger. There are thought to be about 1,100 species of bats, only 3 of which feed on blood — and none of them bite without provocation. Contrary to popular belief, only half of one percent of bats carry rabies. They do, however, love to chow down on insect pests that destroy valuable crops.

“Bats help suppress insect populations, particularly in agricultural regions where crop pests do an enormous amount of damage,” says bat lover Thomas Kunz, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of biology and an expert on the flying mammals. “One example of their favorite food is the corn ear worm moth, which is probably the most damaging insect pest in the world.”

To better understand just how beneficial bats are, Kunz has spent the past decade devising ways of accurately counting them in various regions. Most recently, he’s been working at a dozen caves in the corn- and cotton-producing Hill Country of Texas. Depending on the time of year, he says, about 1.2 million to 1.4 million Brazilian free-tail bats will inhabit a single cave.

In the video above, Kunz talks about his newfound method for counting bats, and why it’s important to know how many bats live in the neighborhood.

Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.

This story originally ran January 22, 2008. 

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