In Tracking Bats, It Helps To Find Them Adorable

Julia Hoeh is a bat tracker. For $350 a week plus basic housing in rural Tennessee, she stays up long after midnight to affix radio trackers to bats and collect samples of their DNA.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This summer, we're hearing from young people who've landed unusual jobs - sometimes really unusual jobs. Today, we meet 27-year-old Julia Hoeh. Her job is downright batty. Reporter Daniel Potter caught up with her in the mountains of Tennessee and sent us this story.

DANIEL POTTER, BYLINE: Julia Hoeh works late - past midnight - and doesn't get done until around three a.m.

JULIA HOEH: We typically lead kind of the same nocturnal life that bats do.

POTTER: Hoeh's working as a bat field technician. She's on a research project deep in the woods of East Tennessee.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

HOEH: Does that look pretty straight?

POTTER: A few hours before dark, she hammers and stakes for a catch-and-release trap called a mist-net. It's like a giant badminton net spanning an old logging road that stretches up to the canopy of branches above.

HOEH: I'm hoping a graduate student from Indiana State University who is looking for Indiana bats in this area and also northern long-eareds, which - Indiana bats are already an endangered species and northern long-eareds will probably be listed soon.

POTTER: A Vermont native, Hoeh has two tiny tattoos next to her eyes from a stint in the Peace Corps in Africa. She's also hiked the Appalachian Trail. Her boss, Vanessa Rojas, says that experience helped Hoeh clinch the job. It showed she could handle herself in the woods.

VANESSA ROJAS: We're looking really at like how the population is changing from white-nose syndrome.

POTTER: Rojas is working on a PhD, studying a disease that's killed millions of bats in New England over the last decade and is spreading to the South. And she's trying to find out more about bats in this area.

ROJAS: That's a big part of my project is to use a model to try to predict where they are and test that model. And so that information, since they're endangered, can give us ways to protect their habitats.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIMER BEEPING)

POTTER: A timer every eight minutes throughout the night prompts Hoeh, Rojas and one other field tech to take turns walking up and down the dark road, checking the nets for bats.

HOEH: Any kind of bats we catch, we take measurements on them and band them. So if we recapture them, we'll know in the future.

POTTER: Other tools of this trade include baseball batting gloves to protect against bites and a lighter to sterilize the dermal punch that’s used for collecting tissue samples from the bat’s paper-thin wing and because the team works in pitch darkness, a headlamp, so both hands are free.

ROJAS: That's a female.

HOEH: Is it?

POTTER: This female northern long-eared bat is the find of the night. The crew sticks a tiny radio tracker to the bat’s back before setting her free. They retire to their tents a few hours before daybreak and are up the next morning in hopes of locating the bat in a tree that’s home to lots of others, including babies or pups.

HOEH: We probably look crazy, but we’re driving around and holding an antenna out the window and just listening for the beep of the radio transmitter that the bat has on her.

POTTER: This particular bat was never heard from again, but for Hoeh, who has a bachelor's in zoology, the effort is still worthwhile.

HOEH: I’m hoping to go on and do more work in the field and potentially get a master’s in grad school in wildlife biology. And in order to do that you need to prove that you can - that you’re excited about being out in this environment.

POTTER: The work pays $350 a week. That includes housing. Hoeh shares a room with the other field tech when the crew isn’t camping hours away. After this field trip, Hoeh notes she’s also worked with birds, but says it’s bats that have personality.

HOEH: I think a lot of people think of bats as just a flying mouse and they're so much different than rodents in general. You know, they only have one to two offspring a season. So if their population gets knocked down, it takes them a long time to recover. And they're just so fricking adorable.

POTTER: Much as she loves bats, this is her second summer tracking them in Tennessee. Hoeh's not sure she'll do it again next year. She says she’s getting tired of the nomadic life of a field tech and may settle into a graduate program sooner rather than later. For NPR News, I’m Daniel Potter.

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