not only brings national attention
to the Department of Forestry's
work in developing
sound stewardship practices,
but it also focuses attention
on the important
small animals play
in the life of
the planet's forests.
Timber companies will ultimately use
the study's findings to better manage
harvesting procedures in order to safeguard
the endangered bats.
Graduate student Dan Cox assists Mike Lacki as he investigates a bat in Robinson Forest.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Has a Story
In 1992, Michael Baker '93, '96 hadn't yet decided what he wanted to do with his life. He was working at UPS to make ends meet while he took his time getting through undergraduate school, dabbling with different majors, trying to find his way. But a field trip to the Daniel Boone National Forest was about to change all that.
It was a late Friday night in early fall. Mike Lacki's class had just finished stringing mist nets to capture bats. Baker, waiting in the dark surrounded by much younger classmates, was thinking, "What am I doing here? I should be seeing some loud band in downtown Lexington."
Not long after, he had his answer. Watching Lacki handle a bat and point out the various parts, Baker was suddenly fascinated and thought, "There's a job. That's a cool job!"
Much later, during the hike out of the forest, Lacki suddenly came up behind him, clapped a hand on his student's shoulder and asked, "So what's your story, Baker?"
"I hadn't thought that I had a story at that point," Baker remembered years later.
That deep woods conversation was the start of a long, professional relationship between professor and student. Baker left UPS and took a job as a student worker in the department while he worked on his bachelor's and master's degrees in forestry.
Today, Michael Baker, with a doctorate in wildlife and fisheries science from Louisiana State University, is back at UK as a post-doctoral scholar. He is working with Lacki to study the importance of tree roosts for the ecology of bats in the Pacific Northwest.
Big Brown Bat
Turning Bat Notions
by Carol L. Spence
The woods ring with the sound of birds settling in for the night. A moist, humus-y smell rises from the forest floor. As the horizon cools, night creatures begin to stir—owls, moths, bats. And Mike Lacki.
Just as moths attract bats, bats have drawn the University of Kentucky forestry professor to nocturnal forests from Kentucky to the Pacific Northwest. To Lacki, the night isn’t filled with the fearsome animals, shadows, and strange sounds that so many people dread. Lacki, like his bats, has found his niche in the forest’s night.
“Being in the woods at night is awesome,” said Lacki, a professor of wildlife ecology and management. “All the encounters that you run into with wildlife that never happen in the daytime—you just turn the corner and boom, there’s something right there.”
For nearly three decades, Lacki has focused his research on an animal that makes most people shiver and shriek. But for him that was part of the allure. As a master's degree candidate in zoology at The Ohio State University, Lacki agreed to work on a bat study that no one else wanted.
"Why would nobody want to do that? I don't understand that," he said, shaking his head. He quickly found that familiarity breeds fascination and respect. As he saw it, others were missing out on the opportunity to learn about an enthralling and misunderstood creature.
"It's different everywhere in the world, how people view bats. Some cultures view them positively; some do not. And of course, the media and TV and movie industries certainly created an image of bats that the majority of people probably don’t view as positive. So from that standpoint, I feel like it's far more important from a conservation point of view to perhaps help out a group of animals like that."
Lacki belies the notion that a scientist needs to maintain a cold detached approach to his subject. He is fervent in his respect and affection for bats. "After you work with them for a number of years you begin to realize a couple of things," he said. "For their size they are tremendously smart. I mean, the ability to echolocate alone is mind-boggling when you think about it," he said, referring to the sonar-like ability used by bats to forage for food and navigate.
While echolocation may be bats' most familiar ability, their other communication skills are still being discovered.
"It's becoming more and more apparent that we are just barely scratching the surface in terms of how much communication actually takes place," said Lacki. "They may be able to transfer information to each other about where to go to feed. And the whole mother-pup interaction is very extensive. I mean all you have to do is be able to sit outside the entrance of a cave that has a maternity site and listen, and you'll be amazed at what you hear. It's a whole range of audible calls."
Lacki is particularly enthusiastic about Rafinesque's big-eared bats, an isolated colony of which lives in UK's Robinson Forest. In every state in which they appear, they are considered either endangered, threatened, or, as they are in Kentucky, of special concern. "The colony of Rafs kind of makes the forest special for me, because it's just neat that we've got something like that here," he said.
Rafinesque's Big-Eared Bat
Lacki has been tracking the Robinson Forest colony of Rafinesque's big-eared bats since it was discovered in 1996. Because of his long-term relationship with the animals, he's gained a familiarity with them and a high regard for their intelligence.
"I know that some of those individual bats know who I am because they've seen me so many times. To me, that's kind of neat," he said. "So you gain kind of camaraderie. Maybe it's not really camaraderie, but a connection to something that you've worked with for so long. Many of them have seen you come and go many times, and they know that you're OK and that you're not going to try to do anything to them. Whereas other people who enter"—and here he snaps his fingers—"they’re going to jump and leave."
Lacki, who earned his doctorate in zoology from North Carolina State University, came to UK in 1989 and "walked right into a study on the endangered Virginia big-eared bat in the Daniel Boone (National Forest)." He remembers it as a "time when everyone was just beginning to try to track bats and to study bats as they forage across landscapes." Since then, he's made his name as a renowned field researcher, with projects that stretch across the United States. He is in the sixth and final year of a roost density study in the Pacific Northwest. Timber companies will ultimately use the study's findings to manage harvesting procedures in order to safeguard bats.
Currently, Lacki is involved with two projects in Kentucky and surrounding states. One seeks to understand the effects of fire on maternal colonies of bats. The other study, covering seven forest locations across four states, is designed to evaluate the implications for bats under different timber cutting practices.
Lacki's research not only brings national attention to the Department of Forestry's work in developing sound stewardship practices, but it also focuses attention on the important ecological role small animals play in the life of the planet's forests. As part of the food chain, bats help control destructive insect populations, serve as a food source for other predators, and fertilize the soil with their fecal matter (guano), making the whole area richer for vegetation—vegetation that is vital in cleansing the atmosphere.
To Mike Lacki, protecting "the little guys," as he calls bats, is every bit as important as protecting the larger, more "respected" animals such as wolves and bears.
"They probably play as potentially critical a role as any animal on the planet," he said. "Just from that standpoint alone, they're worth studying."