Happy Halloween: Meet the Batmen and Batwomen of Virginia Tech

From VT News | October 31, 2019

Bats flying through the inside of a house might conjure up visions of a Halloween movie — or even a sitcom.

Just two weeks ago, Alexa Briehl, communications director for Operations at Virginia Tech, was just beginning to fall asleep when four bats descended through the master bathroom vent from the attic and began to flutter about her bedroom and home.

Unsure what to do about the flying creatures flickering from room to room, Briehl and her husband reached out to friend, neighbor, and fellow Virginia Tech communications director Kristin Rose Jutras and her husband, Virginia Tech assistant professor Brandon Jutras, who knew just what to do.

They put out the bat signal to Kate Langwig and Joe Hoyt, both assistant professors in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science. Langwig and Hoyt’s research focuses on endangered bats and the proliferation of the fungal disease white nose syndrome in bats.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, three species of bats are endangered in Virginia and 12 are nongame protected species in Virginia.  Also,“it is illegal to transport, release, or relocate a bat anywhere other than the property it was caught on.”

Langwig and Hoyt walked Briehl and Rose Jutras through a humane step-by-step process for catching and releasing the bats. “First, open windows and try to encourage them to leave with a soft towel. Otherwise, you can safely catch them with a soft, thick towel, or handle them directly with thick leather gloves like fireplace gloves,” said Langwig, who is also an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center.

Bats are nighttime insect predators that can greatly benefit agriculture, but their populations are being decimated by white-nose syndrome.

“Little brown bats were not an uncommon species prior to the emergence of white-nose disease. It would be like losing robins from the bird community. These are abundant backyard species that you would see at nighttime that have essentially been removed,” Hoyt said.

In a relatively new discovery, Hoyt and researchers found in a field trial that probiotic bacteria could be used to reduce wildlife disease and conserve biodiversity. They found that it reduces the impact of the disease about five-fold. These findings were published recently in Scientific Reports.

“Bats are surrounded by myths and folklore that date back centuries, and are always a focal point this time of year,” said William Hopkins, director of the Global Change Center, housed within the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “The reality is that the world would be very unpleasant for people if bats weren’t around. Many bat species regulate populations of biting insects and agricultural insect pests, thus providing economic and human health benefits as well as reducing our need for damaging pesticides. In addition, other bats are important pollinators of plants around the globe. The more we can learn to coexist with bats, the better off we will be. The research conducted by Drs. Langwig and Hoyt represents an enormous step towards protecting these critically important species.”

Kristin Rose Jutras and Alexa Briehl
Communications director for the Fralin Life Sciences Institute Kristin Rose Jutras (left) and Operations communications director Alexa Briehl (right) show off their new bat “condo.” Photo credit: Micah Briehl.

And the bats won’t be too far away after all. They have a new home in a bat “condo” in the Briehls yard.

Installing a bat condo, or “bat box” as they are often called, is just one way to help reduce humans’ impact on the bat population. Other ways include protecting waterways and changing landscaping to provide insects for bats. To learn more about how you can help the bats and build your own bat box, read here.

Written by Alexa Briehl and Kristin Rose Jutras

Related stories: 

Researchers find that probiotic bacteria reduces the impact of white-nose syndrome in bats

Virginia Tech researchers receive $2.9 million grant with China to study infectious diseases