BV prof fascinated with bat research

Monday, December 3, 2012

It is often the hands-on experiences that educators bring into the classroom that have the biggest impact on students. Dr. Heather York, assistant professor of biology at Buena Vista University (BVU), has done this by integrating her extensive knowledge of bats into the curriculum.

"I have always adored animals and have found bats to be fascinating because they are the only mammals that fly," says York. "I was impressed at an early age that bats are so beneficial and interesting in their own right, but have such a bad reputation."

York, whose academic specialty is Neotropical bat ecology, affirmed her interest in bats while studying abroad in Costa Rica in 2000 as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota. While there, York took a course in bat biology.

"I instantly fell in love with the great diversity of bats -- and their ecological roles -- found in the tropics," she says. "I also love doing research and teaching in the field, especially in the tropics. It seems like there are endless opportunities for things to discover."

Before coming to BVU this fall, York was an assistant professor of biology at Doane College and has also had several international teaching experiences. In 2005-2007, York taught high school tropical biology courses in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Peru for Lawrence Academy, Groton, Mass. She was also an instructor for the University of Kansas teaching Neotropical ecology courses in Costa Rica in 2006-2007, and in spring 2012, York taught a high school field course in tropical biology in Peru for Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, N.J.

"There is nothing like doing field work," says York. "It provides the opportunity to see organisms in their natural settings and allows a researcher not only to study his/her focal system (area of study), but also to learn about so many other things in the ecosystem. The tropics are so diverse that every day presents something new and fascinating. That's why I enjoy taking students to the tropics with me."

At BVU, York teaches several courses that involve the study of bats including Zoology, Mammalogy, Tropical Biology, Evolution, and Biology of Bats.

"I always hope that students understand the fundamental concepts in biology, including evolution, ecology, and genetics," says York. "It is easiest for students to understand these concepts if they can apply them to real examples. Bats easily lend themselves to being examples, and I hope that my passion for bats comes out and makes my courses more interesting."

This semester, York brought in a live bat to one of her classes, and occasionally shows students preserved bat specimens. "The students always love seeing live animals, and they also appreciate tangible examples of things we talk about," she says.

"Since taking the Biology of Bats course with Dr. York, I have learned that bats are extremely diverse and that they can be found on every continent except Antarctica," says Jennifer Heim, a senior biology and environmental science double major from Watertown, S.D. "I had no idea the wide range of roles they filled, from pollination of countless plants, to spreading the seeds of others, to controlling insect populations, to preying on small fish. I'm a lot more interested in bats and bat conservation than I used to be, and a lot of that is in thanks to Dr. York's excitement about them."

York says one of the biggest challenges in teaching about bats is the many misconceptions that surround them. "People have so many misinformed ideas about what bats do and don't do, and because people don't know much about bats, they default to fearing them," she says.

Instead, bats provide numerous benefits to the environment including eating insects that can be harmful to humans and agriculture, and aiding with pollination and the regeneration of forests. They are also important to the food web by serving as hosts for parasites and prey for predators, says York.

In recent years, however, a disease known as White-nose Syndrome has devastated bat populations across the eastern United States. White-nose Syndrome is a fungal infection that causes bats to awaken during hibernation and use up stored energy and fat reserves that are needed to get them through the winter.

"Because the disease is spread among bats that congregate in large numbers, it has the potential -- and in many cases is meeting that potential -- to kill huge numbers of bats, threatening already-endangered species and likely pushing otherwise healthy species into numbers small enough to be of concern," says York. "The loss of large numbers of bats from the U.S. will have unprecedented negative effects on humans through the loss of natural insect control."

In addition to studying bats, York has an interest in nature photography and has had her photos published in national publications including The New York Times and Discovery Magazine Online.

"I love being outdoors and observing nature," she says. "Documenting field observations with photos is a natural, obvious activity related to field work. It's been an incredibly useful tool and a fun hobby, and I'm proud that I've been able to produce some photos that others have found interesting and informative."

York's future goals involving bats include starting a study of a group of Bahamian predatory bats as well as developing BVU field experience opportunities in Costa Rica that focus on general tropical biology or conservation.

"I want to continue making important contributions to the science of bats, but it's important for me to include my students in my studies," adds York.

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