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Exploring Ash Meadows After Dark Yields New Scientific Discoveries!

Exploring Ash Meadows After Dark Yields New Scientific Discoveries!

Over 80 kids and adults from Amargosa Valley, Pahrump, and Las Vegas arrived to the Point of Rocks picnic area just as the sun was setting at 8pm, Saturday evening.

USFWS biologist Cristi Baldino shows kids how to use a bat detector to hear bats echolocate in the wild. Photo by Sierra Willoughby.

The event sought to expose people to some of the most feared and misunderstood creatures on earth – bats and scorpions – and foster an appreciation for the important role that these animals play in nature and our own lives. To emphasize this point, USFWS biologist Cristi Baldino made a large batch of “bat fruit salad” for everyone to snack on. With mangos, bananas, peaches, figs, dates, cashews, and carob chips, the delicious salad was made only with fruits that are dispersed or pollinated by bats. Everyone agreed that bats make our lives a whole lot tastier!

Kids and adults eagerly crowd around Natural Resource Specialist Sam Skalak to measure the weight of a mist-netted bat. It weighed only 3.5 grams – less than a nickel. Photo by Sierra Willoughby.

While everyone was enjoying the calm lull of evening, Cristi turned on her bat detector. The device converts the sound that a bat makes into frequencies audible to human ears. Suddenly the evening air wasn’t so silent. People stared at the detector emitting its strange buzzes, trills, and chirps, but Cristi was already busily scanning the evening sky for the source. Soon everyone was joining in the search, eager to spot the first bat. Sure enough, a tiny western canyon bat fluttered across the sky. Cristi explained that the detector records the sounds bats make during echolocation and feeding. The recordings can then be uploaded onto a computer, creating an image that biologists call a sonogram. Each bat species produces its own unique sonogram that biologists can use to tell them apart. Thanks in-part to the research conducted by Natural Resource Specialist Sam Skalak, it is now known that there are at least 15 species of bats at Ash Meadows. Several of these species just migrate through seasonally, but others – like the western canyon bats everyone was watching – live at Ash Meadows all year round.

Gloves were worn when handling this western canyon bat to protect from spreading white-nose syndrome – a disease that is decimating bat populations across the eastern United States. Photo by Jeremy Cohen.

While it was still light, Cristi and Sam led everyone over to King’s Pool where they had set up a mist-net – a fine mesh net used to capture bats for research. Everyone waited expectantly hoping that one of the dozens of western canyon bats flying overhead would accidently swoop into the net. While they waited, Cristi explained that mist-netting is an important tool for biologists because it allows them to gather very important information, including the sex, weight, age, health, and reproductive status of the individual bats. Biologists are even able to fit bats with miniature radio tracking devices to determine where they are moving. This information is critical for making conservation and management decisions, especially in light of the fact that more than half of the 47 bat species in the United States are endangered or are in rapid decline.

Eventually, despite wind and the crowd of people, a single bat flew into the net. Sam carefully removed the bat and brought it back to table to collect some information. The bat was determined to be a female western canyon bat, and she was pregnant judging by the rounded shape of her abdomen. Still, carrying a single pup, she weighed only 3.5 grams – less than a nickel. Before she was released, the group crowded around Sam to get a closer look. “It’s all furry,” one child exclaimed in surprise, “and it has tiny teeth!”

Once darkness had fully set in around 8:45pm, it was time for the scorpion search. UNLV researchers,

During the event, UNLV biologist Matt Graham found this scorpion, Paruroctonus bantai, hunting on the Point of Rocks range. It is the first record of this species outside of Death Valley National Park. Photo by Jeremy Cohen.

Matt Graham and Mike Weber, equipped everyone with blacklight flashlights and led a trek along the boardwalk and up towards the Point of Rocks range. Everyone busily scanned the ground hoping to spot a scorpion. Along the way, Mike spotted a woodhouse toad and held it for everyone to touch. Matt, who is currently studying scorpions for his PhD research at UNLV, deftly found 4 scorpions on the rocky hillsides, carefully picked them up with long tweezers and put them in a plastic Ziploc bag for everyone to take a closer look. Matt was thankful to have found any scorpions that night – it had been an unseasonably cold spring and scorpions were not very active yet. On a hot summer night, scorpions can number in the hundreds, coming out of their underground burrows to hunt for spiders, centipedes, and other invertebrates. To Matt’s excitement, the scorpions he found were a species that had never been recorded outside of Death Valley National Park – likely because there have been precious few people out looking. Every day, biologists are still discovering new species that nobody knew existed. Nature is full of surprises in the most unexpected places – it’s just a matter of going outside and exploring.

– Alyson Mack, Great Basin Institute Environmental Education & Outreach Specialist

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