Batman. Dracula. Bartok. In literature, television, and film, bats have been alternately depicted as mysterious, evil, and even goofy, a fact that underscores the often complex perceptions humans have about them.

Yet despite centuries of misconceptions about particular members, the bat order includes over 1,400 known species and offers nearly unlimited possibilities for research studies about the interaction between the natural world and 21st-century environments.

Local connection

Dr. Louise Allen has built a career around bats.

Currently a lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences and Director of Strengthening Academic Programs for Student Success at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), Allen earned her Ph.D. in ecology, evolution, and behavior at Boston University. Following her graduate studies, she completed her post-doctoral work as a research associate at Wake Forest University, and then joined WSSU to continue her career as a bat biologist and educator.

When asked how her professional journey evolved to include the study of bats, Allen explains that it was a natural course of events.

“People ask that question a lot,” she says. “Growing up, I was like most kids that like animals and I wanted to be a veterinarian. However, I eventually realized that I wasn’t into the typical vet duties and I refocused my efforts in a different direction.

“You don’t even know that bat biologists exist as a child,” Allen continues. “So when I was preparing for veterinary school, I convinced myself that I wanted to work with wildlife, and I decided to go get some experience with wildlife instead.”

Obtaining that experience eventually transpired into a volunteer commitment for an organization dedicated to bat conservation. During Allen's time as a bat keeper, her future began to take shape as she learned more about the bats under her care.

“I got to know these incredible creatures, and how they have personalities,” Allen says. “I was always interested in underdogs, and when I was 18 years old, most people didn’t really like bats or know about the good things they provide. Now, more people understand the ecosystem and the services they provide, but there are still a lot of misconceptions, even now.”

Over the course of her work as a zookeeper, Allen realized that her favorite part of the experience was working with researchers, prompting her to think that “maybe I should be one.” She began working on grant-funded projects, including one that focused on the human impact on wildlife.

“During my first summer in grad school, I had to collect guano [excrement] specimens from bats under a bridge at midnight and 6 a.m.,” Allen says. “I figured that it was easier if I slept under the bridge in my car, thinking I would save myself two hours of driving.”

What happened next led to Allen’s eventual Ph.D. research.

“There was a giant road over the bridge and this train was coming through at all hours of the night,” she says. “I thought, ‘This noise is horrible, how do these bats cope with this?’ And that’s how my Ph.D. research got started.”

Debunking myths & The Noise Effect

One common misconception surrounding bats is that they carry a large number of diseases, but despite the recent association with COVID-19 in a Chinese market, the reality is not that simple, Allen explains.

She points out that while many people believe bats are unique among mammals in that they can carry diseases (zoonotic diseases) that transfer to humans, a new study shows that more species-rich groups host more virus species and therefore, a larger number of zoonotic species.

“Remember, among mammals, bats are only second to rodents in number,” Allen says. “Which are the two wild groups that are associated with the most wildlife diseases that might affect humans? Rodents and bats. Given that both of these groups tend to get encroached upon with human population growth, habitat destructions, and wildlife trade, they actually cope with living with humans quite well.”

Today, Allen investigates how human-generated noise can cause wildlife to change behavior and alter their patterns. She’s currently working with a group of WSSU undergraduates to study the influence of noise on bats, using sound and bat monitoring equipment near Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

“We are putting bat detectors up at a number of sites and at different distances from new oil compressors to see what changes in behavior occurs among the bat population,” Allen says. “Do some bats disappear while others cope in one way or another? What is the mechanism that causes an animal to leave?”

While the research is ongoing, Allen points out that while it’s hard to perceive what wildlife perceives, she’s eager to learn more about how the bats are adapting to a new noise environment, and what implications revised behaviors might have.

“Normally, bats don’t solely rely on their hearing, but if they can supplement their hearing in noise, then they may be able to be flexible and use sensory modes that make them better able to survive and coexist,” she says.

The beauty of bats & beyond

Allen’s research delves into the habits of a diverse mammal group that has numerous positive impacts on the everyday lives of most communities.

One benefit is that bats consume huge amounts of insects, including some of those that wreak havoc on agricultural crops. They also pollinate many plants, both behaviors positively affecting food supplies. Some bats disperse seeds, and on the other end of the spectrum, guano is considered a valuable and rich natural fertilizer. Even the “African Tree of Life,” aka, the great baobab tree of the East African savannah, is dependent on bats for pollination, underscoring the role of bats as “keystone species.”

For Allen, although bats represent one of her key areas of interest in research, her work also has broader implications.

“One of the things I hope I see from my research and that I care about with regard to the planet is what creates ‘urban winners,’” she says. “What is different for the raccoons, the coyotes, even the cockroaches that fare well in urban environments compared to others like songbirds that don’t do as well? Through my research, I am hoping to contribute to basic knowledge about the way the world works.”

Batman. Dracula. Bartok. In literature, television, and film, bats have been alternately depicted as mysterious, evil, and even goofy, a fact that underscores the often complex perceptions humans have about them.Yet despite centuries of misconceptions about particular members, the bat order includes over 1,400 known species and offers nearly unlimited possibilities for research studies about the interaction between the natural world and 21st-century environments.Local connectionDr. Louise Allen has built a career around bats. Currently a lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences and Director of Strengthening Academic Programs for Student Success at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), Allen earned her Ph.D. in ecology, evolution, and behavior at Boston University. Following her graduate studies, she completed her post-doctoral work as a research associate at Wake Forest University, and then joined WSSU to continue her career as a bat biologist and educator. When asked how her professional journey evolved to include the study of bats, Allen explains that it was a natural course of events.“People ask that question a lot,” she says. “Growing up, I was like most kids that like animals and I wanted to be a veterinarian. However, I eventually realized that I wasn’t into the typical vet duties and I refocused my efforts in a different direction.“You don’t even know that bat biologists exist as a child,” Allen continues. “So when I was preparing for veterinary school, I convinced myself that I wanted to work with wildlife, and I decided to go get some experience with wildlife instead.”Obtaining that experience eventually transpired into a volunteer commitment for an organization dedicated to bat conservation. During Allen's time as a bat keeper, her future began to take shape as she learned more about the bats under her care.“I got to know these incredible creatures, and how they have personalities,” Allen says. “I was always interested in underdogs, and when I was 18 years old, most people didn’t really like bats or know about the good things they provide. Now, more people understand the ecosystem and the services they provide, but there are still a lot of misconceptions, even now.”Over the course of her work as a zookeeper, Allen realized that her favorite part of the experience was working with researchers, prompting her to think that “maybe I should be one.” She began working on grant-funded projects, including one that focused on the human impact on wildlife.“During my first summer in grad school, I had to collect guano [excrement] specimens from bats under a bridge at midnight and 6 a.m.,” Allen says. “I figured that it was easier if I slept under the bridge in my car, thinking I would save myself two hours of driving.”What happened next led to Allen’s eventual Ph.D. research.“There was a giant road over the bridge and this train was coming through at all hours of the night,” she says. “I thought, ‘This noise is horrible, how do these bats cope with this?’ And that’s how my Ph.D. research got started.”Debunking myths & The Noise EffectOne common misconception surrounding bats is that they carry a large number of diseases, but despite the recent association with COVID-19 in a Chinese market, the reality is not that simple, Allen explains. She points out that while many people believe bats are unique among mammals in that they can carry diseases (zoonotic diseases) that transfer to humans, a new study shows that more species-rich groups host more virus species and therefore, a larger number of zoonotic species.“Remember, among mammals, bats are only second to rodents in number,” Allen says. “Which are the two wild groups that are associated with the most wildlife diseases that might affect humans? Rodents and bats. Given that both of these groups tend to get encroached upon with human population growth, habitat destructions, and wildlife trade, they actually cope with living with humans quite well.”Today, Allen investigates how human-generated noise can cause wildlife to change behavior and alter their patterns. She’s currently working with a group of WSSU undergraduates to study the influence of noise on bats, using sound and bat monitoring equipment near Carlsbad Caverns National Park.“We are putting bat detectors up at a number of sites and at different distances from new oil compressors to see what changes in behavior occurs among the bat population,” Allen says. “Do some bats disappear while others cope in one way or another? What is the mechanism that causes an animal to leave?”While the research is ongoing, Allen points out that while it’s hard to perceive what wildlife perceives, she’s eager to learn more about how the bats are adapting to a new noise environment, and what implications revised behaviors might have. “Normally, bats don’t solely rely on their hearing, but if they can supplement their hearing in noise, then they may be able to be flexible and use sensory modes that make them better able to survive and coexist,” she says. 

The beauty of bats & beyondAllen’s research delves into the habits of a diverse mammal group that has numerous positive impacts on the everyday lives of most communities. One benefit is that bats consume huge amounts of insects, including some of those that wreak havoc on agricultural crops. They also pollinate many plants, both behaviors positively affecting food supplies. Some bats disperse seeds, and on the other end of the spectrum, guano is considered a valuable and rich natural fertilizer. Even the “African Tree of Life,” aka, the great baobab tree of the East African savannah, is dependent on bats for pollination, underscoring the role of bats as “keystone species.”For Allen, although bats represent one of her key areas of interest in research, her work also has broader implications. “One of the things I hope I see from my research and that I care about with regard to the planet is what creates ‘urban winners,’” she says. “What is different for the raccoons, the coyotes, even the cockroaches that fare well in urban environments compared to others like songbirds that don’t do as well? Through my research, I am hoping to contribute to basic knowledge about the way the world works.”

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