Up Close: Dr. Gary Kwiecinski

Busting all the myths…

Dr. Gary Kwiecinski tells the story of the Earl of Cranbook as an example of debunking myths about his beloved bats. It was once thought that if a bat should fall on a woman’s head of long hair, the bat would become so entangled that the hair would have to be cut. The Earl took it upon himself to test the myth by placing four species of bats on the hair of three brave female volunteers as he deliberately attempted to entangle the bats into the hair. The bats were able to escape without becoming entangled, proving the bat myth false. Kwiecinski is a Professor of Biology at The University of Scranton celebrating his 25th year teaching in The Electric City. The East Benton resident helms numerous courses (histology, general biology, general physiology, animal nutrition and metabolism) and is also an expert when it comes to mammals of the order Chiroptera. His photography will be featured in the “What’s in the Cloud?” Bats on the Atlantic Coast exhibit at the Everhart Museum beginning Feb. 1. Meet Dr. Gary Kwiecinski…


What sparked your interest in bats?
It was one of my childhood experiences. I was hiking in Harriman State Park in the Hudson Valley area that had numerous hiking trails. I would go on hikes with my friends and we decided to explore an iron mine. We noticed a hole where the ceiling met a wall. We climbed up and there was a cave. We explored the cave with our one shared flashlight between the four of us. There were bats in that cave flying around everywhere. They didn’t get tangled in our hair. They didn’t attack us. We recognized that we disturbed them. They were just trying to get away from us. Also, when I was in college, I took a course in histology and the faculty member worked with bats. He had a colony of 300 vampire bats, so I started quizzing him about the bats and he brought me into his lab to show them to me. I started doing research with him as an undergrad and worked with the vampire bats. I couldn’t believe how gregarious they were. They were constantly in motion and grooming one another yet arguing and fighting all the time and jockeying for position. I was enthralled. I knew they were special animals.

What fascinates you about the animal?
They live in a sensory world completely alien to us. Trying to understand how they navigate in the dark, on the wing is interesting to me. Another thing that fascinates me about bats is their reproductive process. They have some of the most unique mammalian reproductive processes.

We’ve been hearing quite a bit about White Nose Syndrome.
It was first discovered in 2006 in Howes Cavern and three other mines in Schoharie County, N.Y. Dead bats were turning up with this white fungus on their face and wings where there was no fur. A radius around Howes Caverns was being infected. The following year it spread to Vermont, New York and Massachusetts. Now it’s in 21 states. It’s killing millions of bats. Where did the fungus come from? There are many more bats in North America than Eurasia. This fungus is genetically identical to a fungus in Eurasia. The bats there have the fungus, but they aren’t killed by it. This fungus originated there and wiped out the bats except for that population that was resistant. The bats resistant to the fungus have been populating. Some spelunker was in Europe, brought dirty equipment to Howes Caverns, contaminated it, and we are wiping out our bats. There is a resistant population. Where there were 200,000 has about 1,000 bats or less. But those bats are resistant to the fungus. Those are the ones that will repopulate. There is some hope, but it’s going to be difficult.

Bats have a pretty bad rap as being a nuisance and disease carriers.
It’s just not true.

What are some of the biggest myths about bats that simply are not true?
They say all bats are rabid. They are not. They are just like humans. They contract the disease, they get sick and they die. They don’t harbor the virus; they get sick from it. They don’t get tangled in your hair. They’re not all vampires. There are three species that feed on blood. Of those three species, two of them feed on birds. The one species that feeds on mammals has had a population explosion that directly correlates with the arrival of Europeans bringing in livestock (reliable, easy prey) to this continent.

There are many different species of bats from really small ones (bumblebee bat) to really large ones (giant flying foxes). What are some species that stick out in your mind?
The Fringe-lipped bat. On its lips it has these objects or bumps. It really fascinated me. What do these things do? That is one of my research areas right now; also the reproduction and repopulation of bats following natural disasters such as hurricanes and volcanoes.

Where have your studies brought you?
Primarily the Antilles and Lesser Antilles. I’m also working in Panama now at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. I’ve concentrated my work there for the past 15 years.

Talk about what species of bats we would find around The 570.
There are nine bats that can be found in Pennsylvania. Six are permanent year-round residents that hibernate in our caves and mines and buildings. Three species are only here during the late spring, summer, and early fall because they’re migrants from the south. They come north for reproduction. They roost in trees, not in cave or mines, and go back down south in the fall.

What bats do we see swooping around at dusk?
The dominant ones were the little brown bats and they are the ones people are missing now. The ones we primarily see are the big brown bats. We see them at dusk because that’s when they’re coming out of their day roost to feed, usually around water, (swimming pools, lakes and streams) because one of the first thing they do is come out for a drink. If you’re in a hot tree behind bark or in a house all day long, you get thirsty.

How important of a role do bats play in our ecosystem?
In Pennsylvania, it’s primarily insect control. They are natural predators of night flying insects. In the tropics they are the primarily reforesters and dispersers of seeds, particularly of night blooming plants.

Tell us about your photography/exhibit?
I’ve always had an interest in photography and talking pictures so I take a lot of pictures of bats. The exhibit is What’s in the Cloud? Bats on the Atlantic Coast (in conjunction with) the Everhart’s The Blood is the Life: Vampires in Art and Nature exhibit. My focus will be on the positive aspects of bats and why they are important to ecosystems and important for management practices. Not only am I taking pictures of bats, there will also be some landscape type pictures, water sources and forests .
— tom graham

What’s in the Cloud? Bats on the Atlantic Coast at the Everhart Museum of Natural History, Science and Art, 1901 Mulberry St., Scranton will be displayed from Feb. 1 to July 2 in Gallery One. For more information, call 346-7186.

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