RSU Prof, Students Conduct Bat Research, Preservation

Dr. Keith Martin might be the first to say that there’s little glamour in guano.

However, the assistant professor with RSU’s Department of Mathematics and Science said there is much reward in studying bats.

“Bats perhaps aren’t as cuddly as deer or Shamu the whale or as well-known as the rain forests, but studying bat populations presents a unique opportunity to help preserve endangered species in Oklahoma,” Martin said.

The study and protection of bat populations are important because bats are a good indicator species for early detection of environmental problems, he said. Martin has been able to create a direct connection between his field research and the classroom by involving students, including taking groups to the cave sites.

“Over the 10 years that we have done this project, I’ve probably involved 400 to 600 students from RSU in the project,” he said. “And student interest has improved now that the university offers the bachelor’s degree in biology with the environmental conservation option.”

In fact, two of his students are doing their senior research on issues related to the bat studies. One student will be analyzing pesticides and other contaminants in the bat droppings to determine levels of contaminants. Martin said this research has the potential to be published in academic journals.

Martin is the principal investigator for an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation project to construct gating systems on area caves to restrict human access to habitats for endangered bat species. The gates are constructed from angle iron that allow easy access for the bats, but keep humans from disturbing the bats. The gates are placed in the “dark zone” about 30 to 45 feet inside the caves.

During their early attempts at cave gating, researchers would place external gates on the cave mouth, but this often caused the animals to abandon the cave entirely. In the early 90s, Martin and his mentor – Dr. Everett Grisby, his former biology professor at Northeastern (Okla.) State University – discovered placing the gates inside the cave minimized disruption to the bat’s migratory patterns. This internal cave gating system is now the standard protocol among U.S. researchers.

Since 1992, Martin has been awarded $15,000 annually in federal funding, awarded through the ODWC, to conduct the bat research and gating projects. The project has been picked up for an additional five years, he said. To date, Martin’s teams have gated 25 caves in Adair, Cherokee, Delaware, and Ottawa counties.

Martin’s research focuses on two species: the Ozark big-eared bat and the gray bat. The Ozark big-eared bat, found almost exclusively in Oklahoma, is the more endangered of the two species with a population of about 2,000.

The gray bat population in Oklahoma has grown dramatically during the past 30 years from about 50,000 in 1970 to about 90,000 now. Because of its population growth, Martin said the gray bat soon may be removed from the endangered list.