In Central Park, Going to Bat for the BioBlitz

Rodrigo Medellin. (Photo courtesy of The Macaulay New Media Lab)

Rodrigo Medellin. (Photo courtesy of The Macaulay New Media Lab)

Rodrigo Medellin’s first word was flamingo, but his first love was bats. And on a recent late-summer evening, the 55-year-old led a bat-finding expedition through Central Park as part of a marathon effort to tally as many species as possible in 24 hours.

“You have to think as if you were a bat,” Mr. Medellin said of the event, known as the BioBlitz. “You put your brain into bat mode and just picture where a bat would fly.”

And so Mr. Medellin, a bat scientist at the University of Mexico, along with a contingent of other scientists and bat aficionados, set off deep into the northern section of the park at twilight to position nearly invisible mist nets along the Loch, a ribbon of water that flows from a waterfall near the Glen Span Arch.

Mr. Medellin and his posse were not the only ones out hunting. Students of the Macaulay Honors College, which organized the educational event with the Central Park Conservancy, and animal experts of all stripes snaked through the park in search of birds, insects, mammals, fish and other creatures, in addition to bats. (While comprehensive data collected from the daylong count isn’t available yet, several interesting species were found, including chipmunks, a diamondback terrapin and a bullhead catfish.)

“Oh, look, another species!” Mr. Medellin shouted as a group of humans shuffled along on a nearby trail.

A symphony of hoots echoed from around the bend. “That must be the owl group,” Mary C. Pearl, associate dean and chief academic officer at Macaulay, said.

When Mr. Medellin participated in the first BioBlitz 10 years ago, more than 800 species were tallied. And while he believes that the park is more ecologically diverse now than it was then, thanks to conservation efforts, he is not entirely optimistic about the fate of the bats, 6 million of which have died in recent years as the result of a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome.

It doesn’t bode well that species like the big brown bat, hit hard by the disease, were not caught on the evening of the count. And while there were loads of bat calls recorded by detectors, Mr. Medellin said he’d need to sift through that data before he jumped to any conclusions.

Fortunately, the fungus doesn’t affect all bats. Mr. Medellin noted that tree-roosting bats are immune, and the group managed to net a few—two red bats and a silver-haired one, which Mr. Medellin was not expecting to find.

“It’s one of the prettiest bats I know,” Mr. Medellin said as he held up a red bat before a group of students. “This is a female,” he added, rubbing the creature’s furry genitalia with his thumb as it tried to bite him. He paused for a moment.

“Oh,” he said. “No, it’s a male.”

(The group laughed, but he could have fooled us.)

“You know what I just realized?” a student whispered to his friend. “We’re basically the stalkers of the animal kingdom.”

There may be some truth to that. But bats could do worse than Mr. Medellin as their biggest fan.

“You’re Batman,” one student said to him.

“Sometimes,” Mr. Medellin said, “they do call me that.”