In general, over the long period, it has mostly been monitoring populations and counting. We also focus on rarer or endangered species like the Indian Bat or Gray Bat, trying to identify trends so we can work on increasing trends and conserving the species.
Right now we are monitoring white-nose syndrome during hibernation. Our emphasis has shifted to the occurrence and effects of the disease so we can document the spread and help other researchers with data collection.
What determines if you will be in the field on a particular day?
Mostly logistics and scheduling. Right now we are entering the season of winter cave monitoring so we will need to make sure the right people are available. The weather also needs to be appropriate (not too much snow — that makes it difficult to get into the caves).
I can think of a recent case where there was a stream in this particular cave and we had to make sure the water wasn’t too high for us to enter.
You said bat and cave ecologists can be in the field year round. How much time is spent in caves?
For me personally, I probably spend about three-and-a-half to four months in the field. The rest of the time is in the office and in meetings.
We are out in the summer working outside of caves, too. In the summer, I’ve got a project going where my assistants are putting out echo location bat detectors. It’s throughout northern Missouri and they move the detectors around the area.
We also do mist netting in the summer, where a fine net is used to capture bats. They are put up in known flyways. We capture the bats and take measurements and that sort of thing.
Do you have a most memorable moment while working in the field?
There are many. One that comes to mind is a certain cave we had to take a canoe to get into. The first time going in that cave, being in the canoe, and looking out and seeing large clusters of 500 to 700, maybe 1,000 Indiana bats per cluster. That was pretty spectacular to see.
What is your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part is really just the opportunity to learn more about these fascinating creatures — to see where they live and try to have a positive impact on their conservation.
What motivated you to focus on this part of ecology? Is it something you fell into or did you know you wanted to study this specialty?
I fell into it and I’m happy things worked out. Before this, I was a generalist doing lots of different things. I had the opportunity to coordinate a bat project with university researchers. Our bat biologist was retiring so after the research project, I had the opportunity to fill his shoes.
Do you work locally or all over the state?
I work out of Kirksville, but I have statewide duties so can potentially work throughout the state.
What specific equipment is needed when entering a cave?
The standard things are a quality caving or rock helmet (they are the same type used for rock climbing); two sources of light with plenty of backup batteries (three light sources are preferable); good footwear appropriate for the inside of a cave; and at least three people; preferably four.
What education is required to become an ecologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation?
At the very least, a four year bachelor’s degree in some sort of natural resources field. Some have had the opportunity to get in with that and then develop their skills; working their way up. For the job I have the base requirement is a master’s degree. Some folks in my position have PhDs.
Editor’s Note: Many land caves once open to the public are currently closed as “a precaution against human disturbance exacerbating the effects of White-nose Syndrome on hibernating bats and any potential for humans to accidently contribute to disease spread,” Elliott explained. For families and individuals interested in learning more, he suggests contacting a local caving club. Learn more about qualified cavers in Missouri.
Guided cave tours are available at Onondaga Cave State Park, located at 7556 Hwy. H, Leasburg, MO, 65535. Admission is $15 for those 13 and up, $9 for kids ages 6-12 and free for 5 and under. Walking tours are approximately 1-mile long and take a little more than an hour, so be sure to wear a jacket and comfortable shoes. Tours are typically given mid-April through mid-October, although the cave was closed recently due to flooding. Visitors are encouraged to check the website for advisories before visiting.
Interested in learning more about bats? "Fang out" with the experts at Midwest Batfest Saturday, April 9 at World Bird Sanctuary and Sunday, April 10 at Onondaga Cave State Park. Day one of the festival at World Bird Sanctuary includes activities, presentations, a portable cave and mist netting demonstrations. Day two features discounted tours of Onondaga Cave and live bat programs.