For as long as she can remember, AAAS Member Kristen Lear has always rooted for the little guy — that’s why she loves bats.
“To me, bats are an underdog, just like spiders and snakes, that people don’t like and fear irrationally,” Lear says. “I’ve just always been drawn to things that people don’t like, the creepy crawly.”
As a bat conservationist for more than a decade, Lear protects and focuses her research on endangered bat species around the world. In the United States, one of the biggest things threatening bats is white nose syndrome, a fungus that attacks bats while they hibernate in caves during the winter, she says. On hibernating bats, the fungus infects skin of their muzzle, ears and wings. Lear says the disease makes the bats hunt for food in the middle of the winter, which causes the bats to starve or freeze to death.
White-nose syndrome can kill 90 to 100 percent of a single bat colony. The little brown bat used to be the most common bat in the United States, but its numbers have fallen so sharply that there’s talk of including it on the endangered species list, Lear says. In fact, Pennsylvania earlier this year added the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat, and tri-colored bat to its endangered species list.
Bat habitat destruction in the United States and around the world poses another threat for bat species. That’s when land is cleared to make way for agriculture and development.
“People don’t often like bats, so that negative attitude can cause some problems too,” Lear says.
Lear’s passion for bats began as a little girl. She loved the book “Stellaluna” as a child; then got her first hands-on experience with bats in college at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she spent two summers as a field assistant in Texas helping a PhD student research pest control of bats in pecan agriculture.
That marked the first time Lear had seen bats up close.
“Oh my gosh, I just absolutely fell in love with them and I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she says.
After graduating from college in 2011, Lear earned a U.S. Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarship that allowed her to spend 14 months in Australia monitoring the population of the critically endangered Southern bent-wing bat. While there, Lear used thermal imaging cameras and automated counting systems to track bats coming out of a particular cave — during peak season, she counted 40,000 of them.
She started her PhD at the University of Georgia where she’s spent the last four summers in Mexico working on the conservation of the Mexican long-nosed bat, an endangered pollinating bat.
These bats eat nectar from agave plants and pollinate them, but across Mexico, there’s a lot of land being developed or transformed for agricultural use, Lear says.
“So those native agave areas are being cleared … and the bats are losing their agaves,” Lear says.
Part of her work means working with rural communities to promote conservation among agave plants. She’s working with organizations like Bat Conservation International and a Mexico-based NGO called Especies, Sociedad y Habitat A.C to spearhead an agave restoration program to plant more of them in the region.
“We want the people to continue using the agaves because it’s part of their culture and a huge resource for them (as well as bats),” Lear says. “It’s basically figuring out how to promote agave use for bats and people.”
During the XVII National and XI International Symposium-Workshop centered on the production and use of prickly pear cactus and agaves for rural development and sustainable livelihoods next month in Mexico, Lear will present her research on pollinating bats and agaves, and work to restore the landscape to help aid in bat conservation. Researchers, community representatives, NGOs, development agencies and others working in this space will be attending. Before the conference, she and her Mexican colleagues will plan on rounding up local stakeholders for a training on collecting wild agave seeds.
Lear maintains a busy schedule beyond bats and their rural habitats.
As an If/Then Ambassador with AAAS, she’s one of 125 women in STEM who will spend the next two years mentoring and serving as a role model for girls interested in STEM careers. As part of this, Lear filmed a segment for “Mission Unstoppable” on CBS that follows her career and is slated to air this winter, which further publicizes women in STEM.
“It’s just a really great way to increase the visibility of all the women in STEM and the work we’re doing and to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM,” Lear says.
In Athens, she does additional conservation work building bat houses and doing educational outreach centered on the winged mammals. She recently led a National Geographic Explorer Classroom session for K-12 students across the U.S. and Mexico.
In her outreach work, Lear constantly pushes back against bat stereotypes, mainly that bats are dirty, diseased, and scary because they only come out at night
There’s no such thing as being “blind as a bat,” because bats aren’t blind. And they won’t fly into your hair, she says. And, while people worry about rabid bats, the truth is less than 0.5 percent of bats in the wild have rabies, Lear says.
Bats are good for insect control, eating up to their body weight in insects every night, including corn earworm moths and cotton bollworm moths that both destroy crops. This helps farmers save money on spraying fewer pesticides and saves us money at the store on cotton, pecans, and corn.
For people interested in helping bats, Lear suggests building bat houses, supporting organizations like Bat Conservation International, or planting night-blooming flowers that’ll draw nocturnal insects, giving bats something to eat.
“Talk positively about bats and tell people how neat they are,” Lear says. “Help spread the word. It’s a fun, easy thing to do.”