Sunday, November 17, 2013

Royal Botanical Gardens and Microbat Expedition

Within Melbourne there is a garden much larger than Fitzroy Garden. The Royal Botanical Garden is a huge area filled with various landscapes from around the world. I'll add a link to more pictures from the garden and bat project to this blog and Facebook once I can get them all uploaded.

What is a herbarium? 
"A herbarium is a scientific collection of preserved plants and fungi. The National Herbarium of Victoria is Victoria's primary plant biodiversity research institution. Our scientists are authorities on Australian plants and fungi and are part of a worldwide research network. Our research is underpinned by Australia's oldest and most comprehensive herbarium collection, comprising more than 1.2 million specimens, along with botanical literature, artwork and historical material."

In order to meet local researchers and see some native wildlife, I decided to do a one day Earthwatch expedition. This was the be held within the gardens. My train ran 30 minutes late. Once I arrived at the gardens, I attempted to take a short cut to get to the meet-up location on time. As I walked I received a phone call from a girl, Ellie, who wanted my help researching Little Penguins. I tried to compare availability with her, but it was nearly impossible without a calendar and out of breath from speed walking through the massive gardens. I had to get off the phone and ask her to email me the information to go through once I returned home. Hopefully I didn't ruin that opportunity! 

After a little while, I realized that shortcuts don't really work is gardens that size. I called a the phone number on my forms to let them know I was lost within the garden and might be a little late. One of the researchers, Tanja, came on a golf cart or "buggy" to pick me up and take me to the meet-up place. In my defense, it is doubtful I could have found the meet-up spot even if I had followed the directions. 

Inside a gardener's building, I met the project group. There were two researchers, Caroline and Tanja. Tanja was from Germany, while Caroline was from Australia. Both were pursuing their PHDs with this research. There were three other girls helping with the project as well, making us a group of six. 

The evening began with introductions and a short talk about the itinerary. We were going to be catching microbats, not the larger bats like flying foxes, but rather bats of similar size to the ones you would find in the US. After, we split into two equal sized groups to set harp traps throughout the gardens. I went with Tanja's group. The traps were disassembled metal poles wrapped in canvas and tarp within a bag, much resembling an unmade tent. We fit the poles together into a hollow square, pulled down two top poles which unraveled strings resembling a harp, hung canvas around the bottom with a tarp between, and added more poles for extra height. The traps were aligned on pathways, under tree arches. The bats would try to fly under the trees, meet the harp like barrier, and fall into the canvas. The tarp would keep the bat from crawling out of the trap. 

This was one case when wearing heels while doing field work would have been helpful. 

After setting up all eight traps, we headed back to the main building for a slideshow presentation on the research being done and local bat species, followed by a movie about bats from around the world. The biggest take away from this was learning that bats give birth to babies 1/3 their own weight, and sometimes they have twins. Think about that. It's like a 100lbs woman giving birth to two 30lbs babies! Ouch! 

We also ate various snacks, several of which were new to me. Everyone insisted I do a Tim Tam slam. The Tim Tams were small chocolate bars filled with a hard chocolatey caramel. I bit off a corner from each end and used it as a straw for warm milk. This softened the whole cookie like an Oreo soaked in milk. The goal was to eat the entire thing before it fell apart. The Tim Tam was yummy, but the warm milk wasn't so good.

So, after some time, we put on our "head torches" and went back out to check the traps. On the way, I told everyone about my first sighting of native wildlife. (Not including common birds.) I had been walking out of my apartment one evening and spotted an animal perched outside on a deck railing. I thought that I had finally spotted a bush-tailed possum. This animal was supposedly everywhere at night, but had eluded me. As I stared up at the animal, it crept into the light of a nearby window; there was just enough light to make out that it was a cat. :( Suddenly from above the roof flew a giant bat! It was the size of a large bird, but undeniably a bat, a flying fox to be more specific. I had yet to see a possum and I asked the group to point it out to me if they saw one. 

Almost immediately they spotted one. I was given a small stick and told to try to get the possums interest with the stick. It worked for long enough to get a good look at the adorably fluffy creature and one good picture. We also saw a ring-tailed possum, but it ran before anyone could get a picture. 

The security guy had moved the traps off of the path so he could drive through, but never put them back, keeping us from catching any bats on round one. We moved each trap back to their original spots and checked on them again after an hour of so. We caught two bats the second time. Both were Gould's Wattled Bats. The first bat was a lactating female, and the second was a juvenile male. Juveniles can be determined by looking at joints within the fingers of the wing. The male had several mites on him. Seeing them crawl around was the creepiest part of the whole night. 

^ Caroline is entering data, while Tanja is examining the bat. ^

^ Showing how they tell juvenile from adult bats. ^

^ The female bat ^

^ The male bat. ^

Neither researcher wore gloves. I asked why. They stated that they were both rabies vaccinated and were hardly ever bitten or scratched. Most of the bats they worked with wouldn't be able to break through the skin. Even if they did get bitten, they would just get a booster shot. I chose not to hold any bats myself, since I've grown much more comfortable wearing gloves when working with bats. While Australian bats don't carry rabies, they do carry a similar Lyssavirus. The rabies vaccine protects against both, but it's still better to be safe.

The bats were released and we all prepared out cots for bed. It was too cold for me to sleep well. I curled into a ball and shivered my way through the little bit of night left. Next time I'm bringing a heavy duty sleeping bag! There were no more bats caught by morning, so we went out with Caroline to take down and pack up all the harp traps while Tanja stayed behind to cook breakfast. Breakfast was amazing! We had toast with scrambled eggs, roasted tomatoes, and mushrooms. I might have just been super hungry. Everyone packed up their belongings after breakfast and said goodbye. There are a few more opportunities to assist in local bat research outside of earthwatch coming up soon. Hopefully I will be able to join in on those as well.

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