Some dwell in dark caves. Others walk on eight legs. One in particular may or may not be an ingredient in a witch’s brew. Halloween brings out our interest in creepy crawlies, but those who work with them year-round know there really isn’t anything to fear about spiders and scorpions, bats and newts.
It might take a special kind of person to study those creatures that would make most other people run away screaming, but Cal State Bakersfield is lucky to have several of them in its School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering.
To a number of CSUB biology professors and students, each of these animals represent an entire world of knowledge to gain through dedicated study, innovative research and a fair bit of trial and error.
So if the thought of any of these animals makes your skin crawl, let the scientists assuage your fears and show you the beauty of these beasts.
A go-to for Halloween decorations, candy wrappers and seasonal clothing, bats also are ubiquitous around the world. The 1,300-plus species are found on every continent except Antarctica.
Graduate student Erika Noel is studying the composition of bat species found along the Kern River watershed, from Kernville to the valley floor. Mist net capture and the study of frequencies and traits of echolocation through acoustic surveys help Noel determine distinct species and sometimes how the bats forage and use the habitat.
One of those is the mastiff bat, the largest bat found in North America.
“These guys can eat a lot of insects that are really harmful to agriculture crops and food crops,” Noel said. “Knowing that these guys are here is exciting because they help us.”
Elsewhere on campus, Anna Doty, a professor in her first semester at CSUB, will soon expand on her study of how animals save energy in response to habitat changes brought on by climate change.
Bats “are constantly losing heat throughout their bodies; they’re really small animals and that costs a lot in terms of energy use,” Doty explained. “What these animals do is lower their metabolic rate and body temperature to super low rates to save energy.”
Bats, she said, can lower their heart rate to about 20 beats per minute and can stop breathing altogether for 48 minutes.
When it comes to bats, there is one major misconception both Doty and Noel were quick to dispel: Bats will not suck your blood. Three species, all of which are south of the U.S. border, drink blood, but don’t usually go for human blood. Bats also don’t always live in caves; some live in trees, either in crevices, hollows or bark.
“I like when the misconception of bats can be overcome because they do play such an important role in keeping our world healthy,” Noel said. “Without bats, this place would be overrun with insects and pests.”
Plus, if you’ll be celebrating Halloween with tequila, you have bats to thank: Some species pollinate agave flowers.
“I feel a responsibility to continue working on bats because they’re so misunderstood and people are so very, very afraid of them, and they really don’t need to be,” Doty said. “Bats are an important part of our ecosystem and they deserve our respect, admiration and care.”
SPIDERS AND SCORPIONS
It’s safe to say professor Carl Kloock and his students Mikaela Becina and Xavier Plasencia aren’t among the many people who suffer from arachnophobia.
Kloock has been studying the eight-legged creatures since 1995, starting with aggressive mimicry in the pirate spider, and then moving on to scorpions when he joined CSUB. Scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and by bringing in biochemistry major Becina, he hopes to find out why. She is working with the chemistry department to analyze the scorpion extract the team works with.
The three spoke of misconceptions that people have of spiders and scorpions. One Kloock encounters is that people in Bakersfield have been bitten by brown recluses; not possible, he said, because they are not found in California. Plasencia, who works with the professor studying aggressive mimicry in fruit flies, mentioned the bad rap scorpions get.
“Scorpions are not evil,” he said. “They don’t think about being malicious. If anything, they barely think at all. They’re very reactive.”
Spiders aren’t the big creepy monsters many think they are either.
“A lot of people, when they see a spider in their building or their house, they automatically try to just kill it,” Becina said.
If you leave the spider alone, it will leave you alone, and, as Kloock pointed out, “eat insects that are more likely to cause you problems than the spider will.”
Herpetology, or the study of amphibians and reptiles, comes from the Greek word “herpeton,” meaning “creeping animal.” But there’s nothing creepy about a newt, unless you make the fatal mistake of eating one.
Professor Amber Stokes and graduate student Sam Louden study rough-skinned newts, specifically their use of tetrodotoxin, or TTX, the same toxin found in pufferfish. In most vertebrates, Stokes said, eating a newt would cause paralysis and then death by asphyxiation.
(Their main predator, the garter snake, is resistant to the toxin.)
“Tetrodotoxin really is their only defense,” Stokes said. “They don’t really have teeth, they’re not very fast, they don’t have giant claws or anything like that.”
Stokes’ research is to gain a better understanding of where TTX comes from, whether it’s bacteria in the newt making it or if newts have a genetic mechanism that produces it. One thing she has found is that TTX levels are inversely correlated with parasite load.
“There’s a good chance it evolved just so they would be less prone to infections,” Stokes said.
Louden is studying “unken reflex,” a specific behavior newts perform to show predators they are dangerous. When stimulated by a predator, newts bend upward, making their body like the letter U.
“The top part of their body is really drab, really brown, because it’s supposed to blend in with their environment, but their undersides are really bright,” Louden explained. “That’s supposed to be a signal to predators (saying) ‘Hey, I’m toxic, don’t eat me.’ If they do it completely, their head and tail are almost touching.”
When people think about newts, an image of witches dropping eyeballs into a cauldron might come to mind.
“I do get asked on occasion if their eyes have a lot of toxin,” Stokes said. “Honestly, I don’t know but I don’t foresee that they would.”
Shakespeare scholars actually think it’s more likely that the “eye of newt” mentioned in “Macbeth” was something more humane: mustard seeds.