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Thousands of citizen scientists help researchers track bat populations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bats have been in decline across the country for years. Habitat loss and disease are among the reasons. But for scientists to better understand these threats, they have to track an animal that flies around, mostly at night, and it's hard to see and hear. So they're getting help from special technology and a lot of volunteers. Nikolai Mather with member station WHQR in Wilmington, N.C., recently went on a midnight quest to see how it's done.

NIKOLAI MATHER, BYLINE: It's a balmy summer night. I'm on a country road on the border of North and South Carolina with Jen Gore and Jen Hufham. They have their hazard lights on, and they're taking me for a very slow drive.

Why do we have to go 20 miles per hour?

JEN HUFHAM: We're at the pickup. I assume if we're going faster, maybe the wind will be too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

HUFHAM: Oh, see.

JEN GORE: Have a great day.

MATHER: Going this slow on a two-lane road means you'll hear a lot of angry honks. But Gore and Hufham have to drive slow in order to collect bat calls. They're volunteers for the North American Bat Monitoring program, or NABat for short. Gore and Hufham taped a special microphone to the roof of their Toyota. That way they can figure out which bats are flying overhead.

HUFHAM: Eastern red bat.

GORE: Yeah, we're going to get some more through here.

MATHER: They pick up their first sound. Bats use high-pitched noises to hunt. It's called echolocation. The sound bounces off of obstacles in their path, which allows them to kind of see in the dark. The noises are too high for humans to hear, which is why our volunteers use the microphone. The sound waves show up on an iPad that Hufham is holding. It's connected to the microphone. A special app can identify the species.

HUFHAM: Oh, southeastern myotis - we didn't get that one before.

MATHER: Already two bats in the can for these volunteers. And there are 17 species in North Carolina. We can also use technology to make the bat calls audible for the human ear. It sounds a little weird, but here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT CALLING)

MATHER: Every summer, thousands of citizen scientists across North America go on these excursions. They collect these bat calls in the field to share with researchers.

HUFHAM: How visible is the moon? It was, like, halfway visible before, wasn't it?

GORE: Yeah.

MATHER: Hufham is checking the weather conditions. Volunteers have to record the temperature, the cloud coverage and other environmental data for each run.

HUFHAM: It was, like, cloudy but not covering it, really.

MATHER: We reach the end of the route. Gore turns off her hazard lights and drives us back to the gas station where we met. Every volunteer in every region follows the exact same procedure. Scientists need standardized data for their analyses to be accurate. They take their job seriously, Hufham tells me, because they know this work matters.

HUFHAM: The data we collect helps us to look at what species are doing well, what species need our help, and what ecosystems are good for not just bats but other wildlife, as well.

MATHER: And in just half an hour, we recorded 11 different bat species.

For NPR News, I'm Nikolai Mather in Wilmington, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARC DE SOLEIL'S "SAHARA COWBOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nikolai Mather