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Bat Biologist

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Genevieve Spanjer Wright

Holding a batWhat is your Job description?

I am a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Maryland, and my broad research interests include behavioral ecology and conservation.  Specifically, I study behavior, communication, and learning in bats.

What do you study now?

Right now, I am focusing my research on what skills and information bats can learn from one another (Social learning and information transfer), and how they communicate with each other, especially through vocal communication.  I have been working on several projects addressing these questions.  For one project we trained big brown bats to catch an insect that was hanging from a string.  The bats could no do this on their own without training.  Next, I let young bats who did not know how to catch the tethered insect fly with trained bats, and found that several of these young bats learned to catch the insect by observing the trained bats doing so.  Since the room was darkened, they probably learned by listening to the echolocation calls of the trained bats, especially a call known as a “feeding Buzz” that bats make just before they capture a prey item.  Bats in a control group, flying with untrained bats, never learned to catch the insect.  This may indicate that in the wild, young bats learn how to forage by observing Bat researcholder, more experienced bats.

I also recently studied the Jamaican fruit bats in Panama to determine if they would follow each other to a food source, and found that this happens in some cases, but not always.  In addition, I have been looking at social calls that bats make when they are flying or feeding together, and trying to determine the function of different calls in both big brown bats and Jamaican fruit bats.

Additionally, I worked on a project testing a device designed to keep bats from colliding with wind turbine blades, which can kill them.

My next research projects will use two tropical species of bats we have in our lab and will focus on social learning and vocal communication in these species.  Once I have this data, I can compare the behaviors, ability to learn and social calls of the four different species I have studied.

What's the best thing about your job?

I am able to work with and study live animals, both in their natural habitat and in a laboratory setting, and I am able to find out more about why animals do what they do.  In addition, my fieldwork has taken me to beautiful locations and allowed me to see fascinating creatures, including many interesting species of bats.

bat flying

Genni with batsWhat is the worst thing about your job?

Sometimes statistics and other forms of data analysis can be tedious, time-consuming, and challenging.  Also, working with live animals can be frustrating at times, because they do what they want and not necessarily what you expect or would like for them to do!

What inspired you to first study science?

When I was long, my parents took my brothers and me on a lot of trips and hikes, and my father always pointed things out and told us the names of the different animals and plants.  He also introduced me to caving when I was 11, which is how I first became interested in bats.  So I have been interested in finding out more about nature and animals for as long as I can remember. 

What do you do in a typical day?

When I am working with our captive bats in the lab, I come to the lab in the morning and check each of my bats and weigh them to be sure they are healthy.  Then, I spend 2-3 hours in our flight room running behavioral experiments with the bats, then feeding them.  During these experiments, I will record video, audio, and behavioral data.  Later in the day, I might spend time analyzing previously collected data, writing up results from my experiments, and reading papers about my research topic.  On some days I also attend lab meetings or classes.

When I am doing fieldwork, I have some free time during the day, but then I spend about 6-9 hours at night (when the bats are active) conducting behavioral studies with, or observations of, wild bats that are either in a flight cage or are freely flying.

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist?

I suggest getting hands-on experience in whatever field you think you’d like to pursue.  For example, you could find a professor or graduate student doing research that interests you, and offer to volunteer for him or her.  This will give you a chance to see if you really like this field, and also give you a head start in having research experience.  Reading about you topics of interest to learn as much as you can about them, is also a good idea.

Genevieve Spanjer Wright

Biodiversity VideoBiodiversity Video:
Genni makes a guest appearance in the credits of the Biodiversity video while capturing bats in a mist net for her behavior study.


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