Baylor bats around new study

By Jade Mardirosian
Staff Writer

A new study being conducted by Baylor aims to explore the relationship between Waco and its large bat population, estimated at 10,000, of which most are Mexican Free-tail bats.

Han Li, a doctoral student at Baylor, is working on the research as part of his dissertation and said the study will look into how bats live and roost in the city and conversely how the city supports its bat population.

“[The] study examines how wild species of mammals utilize the city and in this case [Li] is studying bats, perhaps several species that naturally occur in Waco and Central Texas,” said Dr. Ken Wilkins, professor of biology and associate dean of graduate studies and research at the Graduate School. “[We] want to understand how they have adapted to the modifications humans have made in the environment. A lot of people will have the general impression that the impact humans have on the environment is a negative impact, but I think that this study may show how some species of animals have benefited the environment.”

The study, which began in August, will last about two years and will examine the types of human constructions bats choose to inhabit and will identify characteristics associated with these structures.

Li said the research will study characteristics such as the building itself, its structure, age, building material and if it is an apartment, a house or used for some other purpose, such as an overpass. The study will also measure these constructions’ distances to water and places like Cameron Park and also other factors, including if it is near an abundance of trees or roads.

Li said the research and conclusions gathered will benefit the community and future constructions in Waco.

“If bats live in the building, they can cause serious damage to the building,” Li said. “My general information to the public may be certain types of construction to avoid. Also, we need to keep bats as a sort of natural pest control, so there may be certain types of buildings we need to preserve in order to conserve these species.”

Li said the bat colonies in Waco could serve the community in a positive way, as they do in Austin where bat watching is extremely popular.

“[Bat watching in] Austin can produce 18 million dollars a year for the local economy; it can be something similar to what we can do here,” Li said.

Wilkins said the research is aimed to help humans better understand how humans impact the rest of the natural world.

“It is about understanding how humans interact with the natural world and perhaps showing not all of our interactions are negative and some actually benefit species of wildlife,” Wilkins said. “Conducting this as a scientific study will help us know if our impact on these species of bats are negative or positive. Our hypothesis is the impact has probably been positive on at least one of these species.”

Li is conducting field research with undergraduate assistants and encourages people in and around the Waco area to notify the researchers of any constructions or locations of bat colonies are by sending them an email.

“We are just interested in trying to understand the choice preferences of these bats,” Wilkins said. “If we can understand that, maybe we can promote the
bat population here.”