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Thomas Kunz’s University Lecture Is Airborne

Bat expert looks up and sees new frontier: the aerosphere

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Thomas Kunz, a College of Arts & Sciences biology professor. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Each semester, Thomas Kunz takes students from his ecology class outside and asks them to look up and describe what they see. 

“On a day with a clear blue sky, they’ll say, ‘Nothing,’” says Kunz, a College of Arts & Sciences biology professor and director of Boston University’s Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology. “Okay, but there’s a lot of stuff up there — we just haven’t really measured it or quantified it.”

In tonight’s 2009 University Lecture, Kunz invites the audience to consider the air around us. Aeroecology: The Next Frontier explores a new discipline that studies airborne organisms — birds, bats, arthropods, and microbes — and how they depend on the support of their aerospheric ecosystem. The new discipline, introduced by Kunz in 2008, is called aeroecology.

As one of the world’s top bat experts, Kunz is used to looking up. He’s studied the mammals for more than four decades, trying to spread the word about their critical role in pollination, controlling insect pests, and sustaining ecosystems.

But he wants to study the aerosphere as a whole, from weather patterns and animal migration to airborne pathogen distribution.  

“People have studied individual tracks, but there hasn’t been an effort to look at it from a holistic perspective,” says Kunz, who uses tools like thermal imaging and radar. “Of the Earth’s elements, the aerosphere is the only circumglobal environment.”

The University Lecture was established in 1950 to honor faculty engaged in outstanding research. Admission is free and open to the public, offering an opportunity to hear a distinguished scholar discuss a favorite topic. Each spring, all faculty members are invited to make nominations for the subsequent year’s lecturer. University Lecturers from the previous five years act as the selection committee.

Thomas Kunz speaks about aeroecology at the 2009 University Lecture at 7 p.m. tonight, October 19, 2009, at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the public.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.

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