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This week on the SciShow Talk Show Ellen Whittle talks about her thesis research on bats and how they use artificial structures as roosts. Then Jessi from Animal Wonders joins the show with Carlos, the Sinaloan Milk Snake.
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(SciShow Intro plays)
Hank Green: Hello and welcome to the SciShow Talk Show, that day on SciShow where we talk about stuff with cool people who are doing cool things. Today we have Ellen Whittle, the first student we've ever had on SciShow Talk Show. Ellen is studying bats, because Ellen loves bats. (Ellen laughs) I was just talking to Ellen before the show, and she's a little bit enthusiastic about bats.
Ellen Whittle: Little bit.
Hank: How did that happen?
Ellen: Yeah... so, um, actually, the love came after the working with bats -
Hank: Oh!
Ellen: But first of all, thank you for having me.
Hank: Of course.
Ellen: So I... got into caving first and caving, bats, kind of goes hand in hand sometimes! So I started to run into bats and see them around and I was - I was just blown away. Like, they're incredible. The fact that I'm going through a cave that I can barely stand to be in for two hours, and they're living in it all winter to escape what's harsher outside. So I was just, I thought that was incredible. So I, I've been working with the Big Fork High School Cave Club, I'm a chaperone for them and I go out with them and we do surveys of caves to try to find these winter hibernacula. Uh, were the bats are staying.
Hank: Hibernacula?
Ellen: Yeah.
Hank: So is that, is that a plural? Is the plural -
Ellen: Hibernacula's plural, hibernaculum is one, and I always screw it up.
Hank: Hibernacula? So that's, that's like, that's that's such a, that's an awesome word! Uh, that's what Batman should call his lair. Awesome. Uh, so what are you studying? Are you doing it by yourself or with students or a mixture?
Ellen: So what I'm doing now is a senior thesis project on how bats use artificial roosts, human structures, in Montana, and I'm doing that as a, as a research project. I'm the only, like, technician but I'm doing it for the Montana Natural Heritage Program. Uh, the Forest Service also supported the project, um, so I've visited Forest Service bridges purposely for them, they provided a vehicle and, and means to go check all these bridges, so theirs different parties interested in it.
Hank: So you basically, so bridges are your main...
Ellen: My research is bridges.
Hank: OK. Bat structures.
Ellen: Yeah.
Hank: So artificial structures are not being built specifically for bats but they're using them. So you've been visiting a lot of bridges.
Ellen: Somewhere around 420.
Hank: That's a lot of bridges.
Ellen: It is, actually, a lot, when you consider it's in the space of about two and a half months.
Hank: What do you find under bridges usually?
Ellen: Really gross stuff. Um, a lot of bugs, which sometimes are the gross things, sometimes not, um, people sometimes -
Hank: Oh yeah?
Ellen: And when I'm really lucky, there's bats.
(Hank laughs)
Hank: But not usually?
Ellen: No.
Hank: How many, how many of your bridges had bats. Or evidence of the bats.
Ellen: Oh, well evidence of bats is a different story. Roughly half had evidence of bats, so droppings, urine stains, that kind of thing. Which - it's pretty funny to get excited about poop. You're like "Oh my god! Poop!" like uh, this is exciting, because I've been to these bridges all day and not seen any poop -
Hank: It's bat poop!
Ellen: It's bat poop.
Hank: Not human poop.
Ellen: Exactly, yeah. There's different kinds of poop you get excited about, you don't get excited about some poop. Um, yeah, so about 50% I would say, and, and it gets - bats definitely use more than 50% of the bridges out here, it's just that, if you've ever been over a little wooden forest service bridge lately, it's directly over the water, so their droppings fall right in the water, you're not going to find it. The detectability is, like, zero. Um, so, that's something that when I work into the statistics part of it, I have to figure out what's my detectability and if it's zero, I have to basically discount those bridges. But, as of right now, out of all the bridges, probably about half had bats signs. And day-roosting bats, which is what we really wanted to look for, um, we found, oh, probably about 15 bridges had day-roosting bats in them.
Hank: So you actually saw bats there?
Ellen: Yeah, exactly. Which made my day, made my week pretty much, every time I found this, and there was kinda like two different types, so you've got a bridge that had just a solitary bat in it, which was exciting enough, and then you had roosts that had more of a colony, um, maybe like greater than thirty bats would be like a colony, so we had a couple - we had a lot fewer of those. We had probably um half of those be just solitary bats. That's usually, like, male bats, like a bachelor bat, um, they'll be out there on their own, whereas the females are more likely to be clustered together or if females are clustered together to raise their young, that's a maternity roost, and just, like, amazing to find.
Hank: Right. So much more rare.
Ellen: Yeah. Yeah, it's much more unusual. We didn't know actually going into it if bats would even do that in Western Montana, because previous studies, so Bat Conservation International has done studies and in 1999 they surveyed a whole lot of bridges South, in the U.S., a whole lot of bridges, and they were trying to figure out whether they were being used by bats, and they didn't even survey Montana, because they said "Montana doesn't have the right temperatures to support bats."
Hank: Right.
Ellen: So -
Hank: Well, we have bats. They now that.
Ellen: They do, and that's - this is the fun part of studying bats, its kinda like a grand mystery, um, where the bats go, because in the winter-time, like I said, we go check these caves to find bats, and you know, I would say we typically find maybe like ten, a dozen bats, or so, in the caves. When you add it all up, it's nowhere near the amount of bats we actually have, so it's like, where are they going?
Hank: Where are they?
Ellen: Exactly! They're - we don't know where they're going! There's either a huge cave somewhere where they all are at, and they're all like "Haha, you can't find us," or there's something else, some part of the story we don't know.
Hank: Wow. I love a mystery.
Ellen: (Laughs) I do too! I wanna help find out.
Hank: Yeah. So how are bats doing?
Ellen: In Montana they're doing OK, all over the world bats are declining. Different reasons, habitat loss - you'd be surprised, you wouldn't think caves would be a habitat that you would lose, but it totally is, especially as people get into them more, there's tour caves, and that kind of things that start impacting them.
Hank: And then - are, are the structures sort of sub-par for bat habitat?
Ellen: That is a great question.
Hank: Is that part of what you're trying to figure out?
Ellen: It is part of what I'm trying to figure out, um, there's definitely been studies saying that actually bridges can do just as well for bats if not better. There is research to say that. For some species. They can't serve as habitat for all species though. Um, Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats are the ones that are pretty famous for doing really well in bridges; you have huge colonies down in Texas of Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats. They do really well, but that means they have to be able to tolerate disturbance pretty well, um, like because there's going to be human traffic and human, human
Hank: Loud...
Ellen: Human interference. So if they're pretty cool with that, then they're going to do really well and they can use bridges really well. So our question is, like, you know in Montana, our bridges are maybe not as well trafficked as like an Austin, Texas bridge, um, so, what kind of species are using them? We have no idea. Um, and whether it's good habitat for bats in Montana. And the fact that I found maternity colonies at all, that they're raising their young in the bridges, says that we have habitat that works for them, because they wouldn't choose to, to have their colony their otherwise.
Hank: Um, unfortunately, Jessi is not going to bringing us a bat today. I think that would be probably bad for the bat, but -
Ellen: Depends on the bat, some of them are more gregarious than others.
Hank: Yeah. Um, but Jessi does have an animal that she's going to bring us; Jessi from Animal Wonders is going to be appearing where you're sitting very soon.
Hank: Jessi has arrived.
Jessi: Hey!
Hank: Carlos!
Jessi: (Laughs) Carlos the colorful!
Hank: Hello, Carlos!
Jessi: Carlos is a Sinaloan Milk Snake -
Hank: What was the first word?
Jessi: Sin-a-lo-an.
Hank: Sinaloan.
Jessi: So they're from Mexico.
Hank: OK.
Jessi: Sonora, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua.
Hank: OK.
Jessi: Um, they come from arid regions, grasslands, Rockies - are you so strong?
Hank: Do they like milk?
Jessi: They got their name because, um, yeah, people were finding them in their barns and the, you know, the old wive's tale is that they were stealing the milk from the cows.
Hank: (Laughs) I'm just picturing this snake attached to an udder, but not biting it, just suckling.
Jessi: (Laughs) Just sucking on it.
Hank: Yeah. Well, maybe a bunch, like every nipple has another snake hanging off it...
Jessi: (Laughs) Just hanging... oooh... that would be... weird.
Hank: Super terrifying. Yeah.
Jessi: Poor cow.
Hank: Yeah. Poor cow... would this eat a bat?
Jessi: Um... if the bat was small enough, I mean...
Hank: There are some pretty small bats out there.
Jessi: He could eat - he can fit something twice the width of the biggest part of his body, so if the bat's, you know -
Ellen: Oh, yeah, he could definitely eat some bats.
Jessi: Yeah. Um, he is terrestrial, so he's not arboreal, so he's not going to be climbing up, you know, finding stuff, but if he did happen to go into a cave and there was a bat down there, he probably would... um, milk snakes are actually pretty, you know, general eaters, they're not going to just eat other snakes or other lizards or other birds, they're going to eat pretty much whatever they come across.
Hank: Whatever's there.
Jessi: Mhmmm. Yeah.
Hank: So -
Jessi: I wish I had a - I wish I shared a bat with you, but -
Hank: No, you don't have any bats.
Jessi: I know.
Hank: That's OK.
Jessi: Bats are amazing, though. And - poop!
Ellen: Yeah!
Hank: Poop!
Ellen: Yes. Poop's the best.
Jessi: Yes.
Hank: There's a lot of poop work over here.
Ellen: It's a biologist's best friend. It's awesome.
(All laugh)
Jessi: So if you saw this snake out in the wild, what would you think? What would you do?
Hank: Uh, as with all snakes in the wild, I would go "Look, a snake!" and then I would stay pretty far away from it.
Jessi: Nice. That's good.
Hank: That's basically my, my - yeah.
Jessi: Good.
Hank: In fact, that's how I also operate with mammals, uh, birds, reptiles, fish...
Jessi: Well, that's good!
Hank: "Oh! Hey! OK!"
Jessi: Leave them alone! 
Hank: Barracuda.
Jessi: Yeah...
Hank: Sharks are fish!
Ellen: Are there a lot of those in Montana?
(Hank and Jessi laugh)
Ellen: I don't know much about this.
(Hank laughs).
Jessi: Alright, so, so -
Hank: Yeah.
Jessi: Yeah, so if you saw it, that's a good advice for any wild animal, anyway, to observes from afar -
Hank: But with this particular color combination, I would think "Stay away."
Ellen: Well, isn't there a - isn't there a - there's a poem you can recite to figure out -
Jessi: Yeeeesss.
Hank: Yeah - red and yellow
Jessi: Kill a fellow
Hank: Or red, any color, any kind of color of snake, just don't -
Jessi: I think we should let her try. (Laughs) Go.
Ellen: I can't remember. It's like, red and yellow, kill a fellow, and then, like, uh, red and black, make... no.... attack... I don't know.
Jessi: Yeah! That's really close. That - I know it as "friend of Jack," which is kind of arbitrary.
Hank: Jack. But no other humans.
Jessi: Exactly.
Ellen: If you're not Jack, stay back.
Jessi: Watch out! Oh, but yeah, there's a rhyme there, and that rhyme is, is associated with these coloration patterns, warning patterns.
Hank: Right, so if red is touching black,
Jessi: Yup, it's gonna be -
Hank: And not yellow,
Jessi: - it's gonna be a coral snake.
Hank: OK.
Jessi: Which is highly - highly venomous.
Hank: Wait. Wait.
Ellen: Wait.
Jessi: No, I said it backwards.
Ellen: Red and yellow is -
Hank: So if it's red and black, then, if the red is touching the black and not touching the yellow -
Ellen: So apparently we're OK here -
Hank: - then we're safe.
Jessi: Yes. Red touching black, friend of Jack, it's a milk snake or a king snake, and then, if the red is touching yellow, yeah, dangerous fellow - it's the coral snake. But there's mutations all the time. So don't be like "Oh, red's touching black - let's poke it!" you know, you know, just give them their space, they have this coloration to help, you know, protect them. Warning coloration. Mimicry.
Hank: It's pretty. That knot he's tied there on your hand.
Jessi: Jewelry.
Hank: Yeah, jewelry!
Jessi: You want to feel him?
Hank: 'Course. Ooh, he's moving with me!
Jessi: Into the hole of the couch! (To Ellen) Do you want to feel him?
Ellen: He's so soft!
Hank: Oh, snakes. I feel like, uh, snakes were way more terrifying before I touched one.
Jessi: Yes.
Hank: The first time I touched one I was like "Oh, that's kind of nice," like, oh, it's just a thing, it's just another animal.
Jessi: It's different than me, but it's like you get past that - that wall of fear, yeah.
Hank: Yeah, that's the thing I know not to be afraid around.
Jessi: Yeah, I think that's where I  - my fascination with snakes was just - I didn't have a lot interaction with them when I was younger and then I  - I went to a reptile convention and they're just everywhere and you just get down and look at them and you're like "Oh!" and they're just amazing.
Ellen: I feel like that's kinda the problem with bats, is that you have even less exposure to them and then you do these guys: there are pet snakes but you don't - and not advocating for pet bats - but like people don't see them unless they're in a situation that they shouldn't be there, like if they get into your house and, and they might be ill or something like that; they've fallen on the ground -
Jessi: And they're flapping and scary and -
Ellen: Yeah, and they're scary and they, they belong at night, you know, you can't actually see them, and I'll tell you what's amazing, is like if you ever get the chance to actually like look face to face with a bat and they look back at you and you're just like ok. Like, you see the intelligence in their face and it's like when you're getting up close with these guys, you're like "wow" you know, this isn't a scary thing of the night that's, you know... just...
Jessi: They have a - they have a - they're a being!
Ellen: Yeah.
Jessi: They're there.
Ellen: Yeah. Exactly.
Hank: Well, awesome. Thanks, Carlos for coming to visit. When - when and what was the last thing Carlos ate.
Jessi: Huh. A week ago he ate a very small little rat. So in a couple of days he'll be hungry again.
Hank:  But not right now.
Jessi: Nope!
Hank: OK, good. Um, thanks for visiting, Carlos, thanks for bringing Carlos to us, Jessi. Jessi's channel is at, and Ellen, thanks for bringing all of your amazing insight and stories and -
Ellen: Thanks for having me!
Hank: Yeah! And also for doing the work you're doing, because it sounds pretty cool.
Jessi: Yeah!
Hank: Keep it up! And thanks to all of you for watching this episode of the SciShow Talk Show; if you want to keep getting smarter with us at SciShow, you can go to and subscribe.
(SciShow theme song plays).