If reality TV did college biology, it would look like this

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

UAA tried out a new biology class this fall, called exploration ecology. Think of it as education outside the box, in real-time. The polar opposite of one professor standing in front of a giant survey class, handing out a dusty syllabus and saying, "Read chapter six and then do the labs."

This class is all about the field trips.

All semester long biology professor Douglas Causey and his 12 students have been tromping through fields, counting invasive plants, chipping out stream ice to see what's swimming underneath and hanging recording devices ¬to capture bat echolocation - all in the Three Rivers area near Girdwood, home to Twenty Mile, Portage and Placer Rivers.

A Little Brown Bat, 3-5 inches long which can weigh up to half an ounze.Because a class shaped like Causey's places university undergraduates alongside working state and federal field scientists, it can take a village to deliver. That's possible by partnering with the Chugach National Forest, a relationship that started in 2011 with the express purpose of using the forest as an extended classroom or "natural campus." Students and scientists can work together to puzzle out nature's mysteries on public lands.

So how does that work, exactly? Turn to the bats.

Most Alaskans don't even know we have bats here. Surprisingly, they've been sighted as far north as Kotzebue, says wildlife biologist David Tessler, with Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Since 2002, he's been inviting and collecting citizen sightings to get a handle on our bats. And about two years ago, he and Jessica Ilse, a wildlife biologist with the Chugach National Forest, did a tiny pilot project in the Three Rivers area to see if they could find bats and determine behavior patterns.

"We know next to nothing about Alaska's bats," says Tessler. For a species that you can't hunt or eat, that's about all the attention bats can expect.

But rather suddenly, understanding bats has become very hot.  Since 2006, a fuzzy white fungus has been threatening little brown bats with extinction across vast swaths of North America.

From the northeastern United States, south to Alabama, east to Montana and north to Canada, almost seven million hibernating bats have died from  "white nose syndrome." A pale fuzz that looks like powdered sugar develops on their noses; it wakes them up repeatedly during hibernation, forcing them to burn extra calories they can't afford. By the millions, they're keeling over dead.

Little Brown Bat with 'white nose syndrome'With such a dramatic plummet, federal and state scientists are working to understand where the fungus came from, how bats get it, why it kills them. Locally, scientists are trying to figure out if Alaska's bats hibernate locally, or migrate to warmer climates, which would increase their exposure.

In an ecology class, students learn about nature's interconnectedness. Some U.S. scientists have calculated that the large loss of bats will leave millions of insects-their dinner-alive to cause serious trouble for farmers, to the tune of millions of dollars.

Then there's the sad question of whether Alaska might become the last refuge for the little brown bat.

Three of Causey's students chose to work with Tessler and Ilse on the bat project. Together they placed recording devices in seven likely locations for bat habitat. Tessler and Ilse taught them how to use the gear to get good data.

All fall semester, the students organized themselves into a weekly maintenance crew to retrieve and replace recording cards and renew instrument batteries. Round-trip for that task? 110 miles.

For bat team member and single mom Brittany Hansen, 26, going to school, working fulltime as a veterinary tech and mothering a 3-year-old, the extra commitment hasn't been easy. But she considers the chance to work on real science valuable enough to go the extra mile.

"I like being a part of a project that will go beyond me, that has bigger meaning," she says. And with future career goals in mind, fieldwork with state and federal scientists is a magnet.

US Forest Service biologist working with UAA studentsOn one weekly trip, the bat team stopped in at the Chugach Forest Glacier Ranger District office to share their data with Ilse. She taught them how to feed it into a software program that displays ultrasonic recordings as dots on a lined spectrum, almost like musical notes on a scale. The students didn't know yet if they'd succeeded in recording any critters.

It was smiles all around when Ilse proclaimed, "You've got bats!"  On her laptop screen, the "vocals" appear like a vertical Nike swish on a bass clef.

Now students are analyzing their data and getting ready to present findings to the agency scientists they worked with. Part of their report will be to identify their next questions.

For Causey, who went on nearly every field trip, this class is an important part of re-thinking and re-tooling undergraduate science education.

"What they've done, without realizing it," he says, "is learn how the whole process of science inquiry goes. Their work leads to next questions. And really, that's the whole point."


Web Extra:
Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game "Bats in Alaska" page

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