Cameras mounted in and around the barn at White Memorial Conservation Center allow online visitors to track and count the center's bats. Screencapture/Whitememorialcc.Org

State biologists are teaming up with the public and a nature center in Litchfield to study bats.

A new project at the White Memorial Conservation Center (WMCC) called ‘Bats Count!’ will use cameras to collect data on the big brown bat — one of several cave-dwelling bat species whose populations have been impacted by a fatal disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS).

Cameras have been set up in the WMCC’s Green Barn with live feeds that the public can watch 24 hours a day. Viewers can help conduct emergence counts — counting bats as they fly out of the barn each evening — through a datasheet and user guide.

Due to WNS, all cave bats except the big brown bat are considered endangered in the state. Two of these species are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The big brown bat has been less immediately impacted by WNS, but is still classified as a species of “Greatest Conservation Need” in the Connecticut Wildlife Action Plan.

The project began on Friday, June 16, with a ceremony unveiling the cameras, which allowed the crowd — both in person and online — to participate in the first count. More than 100 people participated, DEEP and WMCC leaders said.

Since then, program developers Devaughn Fraser, state mammal biologist for the Wildlife Diversity Program of the DEEP, and James Fischer, research director for the WMCC, have said they plan to develop a workshop to encourage ongoing public participation.

“We’ll go over the specifics of the camera, the specifics of the data collection, the observation sheets, those types of things,” Fraser said. “We’re hoping that people will maybe feel a little bit more comfortable with the process; that will accelerate the participation.”

Data collected by participants will be used in combination with observations by the research team as well as an algorithm that tracks the amount of bats exiting the barn at night for maximum accuracy.

Fraser said the initiative serves two important purposes: to assist researchers in learning more about bat behavioral patterns, and to improve the public perception of bats.

“Bats are phenomenal animals, but they do suffer kind of a ‘PR’ problem,” Fraser said. “This is typical of a species that people don’t get to see and interact with very directly.”

Fraser has been a part of “Bat Week,” which the DEEP holds annually the week before Halloween. Similarly, the “Bats Count” program hopes to make people in Connecticut more comfortable with bats, and teach them about the ecological benefits of the animals.

According to Fischer, the “bat cam” is a window into how big brown bat colonies, and those of other cave bats, grow and change over time after the emergence of WNS. Like Fraser, he believes that increasing public perception of bats is also important for the preservation of the species.

“Bats should not be vilified, they should be celebrated. When you see a bat in your background, that’s not something we should be panicking about,” Fischer said. “Bats do count, they matter. That’s why we called the project Bats Count.”

This story was first published June 23, 2023 by Connecticut Public.