It has all the makings of a would-be Halloween movie: bats fly out of storm tunnels starting at sundown. Clouds move in front of the moon.

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The bats flutter this way and that, their numbers increasing as the hour grows late.

But for students in Andrew George’s biology classes, the scene has all the makings of the ideal classroom.

“You can learn some things out of a textbook or a lecture, but this is so exciting and so valuable to experience in real life,” said Jake Wright, a senior from Douglas, Kan.

A few times a week for several months, Wright and other students set up infrared video equipment to record and count bats as they emerge from their roosts, often working until midnight or later. Occasionally they use traps made of fishing line so that they can record biometrics.

Funded by a grant from the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks & Tourism, they’re on a mission to establish a baseline of data that can be useful to scientists in the future.

Bats are valuable as pollinators, much like bees that have captured public attention in recent years, and with a diet comprised largely of insects, are a natural form of pest control.

But a deadly fungus that grows on bats while they hibernate has been making its way west from New York, killing off more than 5 million of them since 2006. Called white-nose syndrome, it was detected in Kansas in 2018 for the first time.

“We’re counting them to see how populations change over time. To do that, you have to establish a baseline and then continue to count them,” said Michael Barnes, a graduate student from Hendersonville, Tennessee, who has previous field experience with bats and serves as a mentor to undergraduate field biology students.

Graduate student Amy Hammesfahr works with Barnes to examine bats and document data.

Graduate student Amy Hammesfahr works with Barnes to examine bats and document data.

Bats can be tested for white-nose syndrome with a swab of their wings. Handling them carefully, Barnes is able to do that as well as other useful biometric screenings, and band a few with radio transmitters to track their migration patterns.

Tests on bats trapped over the summer were negative — not surprising, Barnes noted, as it affects populations the most during winter hibernation.

Wright takes the recordings back to the lab in Heckert-Wells, where he can slow them down significantly to do a frame-by-frame count.

George and his students also have assisted the State of Kansas with collecting bat guano for testing. And, they assisted a group of bat researchers on a trapping expedition in Oklahoma.

Maggie Murray, a sophomore from Frontenac, Kan., said going on that trip opened up numerous career options that she hadn’t yet considered.

“I was measuring the forearm length of bats, looking at their wings for signs of white-nose, helping to put radio trackers on them,” she said. “It took what I’m learning here at school way beyond just the classroom.”

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Rachel Wood, a senior in field biology from Jacksonville, Fla., described the bat research project as “eye opening.”

“Field work like this helps us learn what careers we could do in the future — things we had never even heard about or considered until now.”

That’s the goal of the field biology program, Barnes said: “We want to get students out there in the field, outside of the classroom. And at the same time, we’re contributing to science.”