October Update

Bought a standard poodle puppy.  Bringing him home October 5, so October will be full of housebreaking, and FUN.

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WONDER OF THE MOMENT

Entries in bat (2)

Friday
Aug202010

Spelunking for a Degree, Part 2: More about Bats

In my last post, I told of the refrigerator malfunction that brought me to the cabins of the National Speleological Society in the Kentucky woods.  I had come with my thesis advisor and another student, to collect a fresh supply of beetles from the Flint-Mammoth caves for my master’s research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

         But before I captured any beetles, I experienced bats

         Perspiring in winter clothing in the extreme summer heat, we drove up to our first cave entrance.  The Speleological Society had installed a padlocked iron door to the cave, with circular cutouts to allow bats to fly in and out, which a bat did right in front of me.  My thesis advisor unlocked and opened the door, and out flew a couple more bats.  They were nothing like the scary Hallowe’en pictures.  These bats were light grayish brown, and their bodies, rather than their wings, were what we saw.

         Inside the cave, the year-round 50o F temperature prevailed, a welcome relief.  But I was completely taken up with staring at the arching, rocky walls, some smooth, some crenelated, some with natural shelves jutting out.  The overall colors were gray, amber, and pink.  Wearing miners’ helmets with lights on their fronts, we followed natural paths, and human-made stairs from cavern to cavern.  At one point, my professor had us all turn off our lights to experience the dark of the cave.  It was a strange experience: I kept waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, expecting to be able to see dimly, as at night.  But, of course, in a cave that never happens, because there is absolutely no light at all.  So all the creatures we encountered in there lived in cold pitch black except when humans came around.

         Then we started collecting beetles in one cavern after another.  Hanging from the ceilings were sleeping bats, no bigger than a child’s fist.  I found these little bats so charming: when they sleep, they allow their body temperatures to cool; so when they wake, they can barely move.  The cavern ceilings were often low, and I could walk right up to a sleeping bat and watch it.  Each bat woke up when I approached with my lighted helmet.  Slowly, the bat would begin to move its body and wings, gradually speeding up until it finally had generated enough heat to be able to move freely.  Now it would unfold its wings, stretching and flapping a bit, until finally, the bat would fly off.

         Let me know how you like cave lore.  I’ll post more about Kentucky cave life next time.



Tuesday
Aug172010

Spelunking for a Degree, Part 1: Bats

There are bats on the cover of a recent edition of Science.  They reminded me of the little gray cave bats I encountered during my research for a master’s degree in biology (specifically, in ecology).

         My master’s research was on a cave beetle, Ptomaphagus hirtus, and the possibility that it was in competition with various fungi that used the same food source.  The food source was rat feces.  The beetles and fungi are part of the wonderful earthly system that clears away this waste material.  Otherwise, after 3 and a half billion years of life on earth, we’d be up to our ears in the stuff.

         The ambient temperature inside a cave is the average of the year-round surface temperature where the cave is located.  My beetles live in the Mammoth-Flint cave system in Kentucky, at a temperature of 50o F.  They’re round and tiny, with a diameter of 2-3 millimeters.  So when I first started my master’s research, I could just use the populations my thesis advisor kept in his lab refrigerator.  The beetles lived in shallow glass dishes about the size of a small cake pan, floored with mud from their native caves.

         At the end of my first research year, I needed to earn some money.  So I took a job teaching middle school math and science, and returned to the lab the following summer to finish my research.  Alas, I walked into the lab refrigerator and came upon a waste land.  The fridge had malfunctioned (with no alarm system), and my beetles were all dead at Chicago summer temperatures.  Thus came about my actual introduction to the Mammoth-Flint Cave system.  The lab refrigerator having been repaired, and an alarm system installed, my thesis advisor and I headed for Kentucky.

         It was hot as hell and the cicadas were buzzing loud when we arrived at the cabins of the National Speleological Society.  Sweating, but dressed for 50o, we drove to the cave where we intended to collect our first beetles.  The Speleological Society kept it locked with an iron door perforated with cookie cutter circles.  These are for the bats, a few of which swooped out even before we opened the door.

         Stay tuned.  I’ll be telling some bat stories, cricket stories, beetle stories from among the underground creeks, limestone florets, etc.