An Honored Biologist Works Into the Night for a Threatened Species

Lauren Gonzalez

Thomas Kunz communicates with a colleague in a small plane as they track Brazilian free-tailed bats dispersing from a cave in Texas.
July 24, 2011

For more than four decades, the researcher known affectionately at Boston University as "Batman" has traveled the far reaches of the globe, counting, analyzing, and extolling the virtues of the flying mammal whose existence is now threatened in some parts of the world.

And no matter how many times he experiences it, the swoosh of a million bats emerging from a cave at nightfall still thrills him.

"Every time I go somewhere to study bats, I learn something new and exciting," says Thomas H. Kunz, a professor of biology who just received the university's highest faculty honor this year by being named William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor.

"People fear what they don't know or can't see, and part of what we're doing is educating them about just how valuable bats are." Mr. Kunz, who is 73 and has taught at Boston University since 1971, directs its Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology.

His field work has taken him to caves, forests, and farms throughout the United States, as well as in India, Malaysia, Ecuador, Trinidad, and Costa Rica.

His team has been assessing the ecological and economic impacts of Brazilian free-tailed bats on farm ecosystems. As the bats, which are native to the Americas, swoop across fields at night, consuming vast quantities of crop-eating insects, they save money for farmers who don't have to apply as much pesticide.

He and his team also use thermal infrared imaging to count the number of bats in huge colonies and to study their behavior.

Mr. Kunz's work has also attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force. "They're interested in taking data on how bats fly through cluttered space and using that data to develop algorithms to create a new generation of unmanned aircraft that can fly in cluttered space—through a forest or down the streets of Baghdad, for instance," Mr. Kunz says.

A tiny, batlike plane that could fly alongside the live creatures could benefit both the military and researchers, he says.

"We can only observe bats from a fixed point. We can see what they do as they emerge from a cave, but we don't have them in our field of view for a long time."

Mr. Kunz also examines the threats bats now face. Topping the list is white-nose syndrome, a disease that is believed to have wiped out more than one million bats, mostly those known as the little brown bats, found in the Northeastern United States. His team is also studying how to minimize the number of bats and night-flying birds being killed each year in collisions with wind-turbine blades, a rising threat in many parts of the country.

Winifred F. Frick, a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University and the University of California at Santa Cruz, often works outdoors alongside Mr. Kunz with her toddler in her backpack. She says her mentor has been "incredibly supportive of me as a young woman in the field. And he's a lot of fun to work with. Despite working in the field for 40 years, he still gets a huge joy out of seeing the bats emerge."

She's also witnessed with him the heartbreak of seeing large colonies of bats disappear, largely due to white-nose syndrome. "We went to visit some bats that had roosted for years in attics and barns across New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and they were all gone," Ms. Frick says.

Scientists say the decimation of the bats' population has meant that tons of crop-eating bugs are infesting fields, requiring farmers to spend more on pesticides.

Back when Mr. Kunz began his study of bats, before the days of acoustic detectors and thermal cameras, "the tools of the trade were very different," he says. Sometimes he was able to scoop up a sleeping bat using a net made with thin mesh. And sometimes, the best way to study a bat required a blunter approach. "I had a shotgun with me and I'd figure out who they were when they hit the ground."

Mr. Kunz, who grew up in Missouri, received a bachelor's degree in biology and a masters in education from the University of Central Missouri. While in college, he was exploring a cave with a friend when he shined his flashlight on a bat and caught a glimpse of a shiny aluminum band bearing a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service number.

He called in the number on the band and learned the bat had been tagged by Richard F. Myers, a now-retired professor at Central Missouri.

It was the beginning of a career-long friendship and collaboration.

Mr. Kunz went on to earn a second master's degree in biology at Drake University and then a doctorate in systematics and ecology from the University of Kansas.

Among the things he has been credited with in his long career is the introduction of a new discipline he calls aeroecology, which combines aspects of such fields as atmospheric science, animal behavior, ecology, engineering, and earth sciences to study the science of the lower atmosphere.

The distinguished-professor award came with $20,000 a year in research support and a month of summer salary, both effective until he retires.

Paul Cryan, a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has collaborated with Mr. Kunz on scientific articles and symposia.

"He has been inspiring students and the public for decades with new discoveries about bats," Mr. Cryan says. "His enthusiasm for studying bats, particularly in the context of conservation, is infectious."