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Alaska Science Forum: Visiting bats and the hot maggots of autumn

A little brown bat that visited Fairbanks resident Pat Holloway this summer.

A little brown bat that visited Fairbanks resident Pat Holloway this summer.

PHOTO: By Pat Holloway

By Ned Rozell

After she read a column on Alaska bats, Pat Holloway of Fairbanks sent me a photo of a little brown bat that made it into her house this summer. It surprised her, as bats tend to do when they appear in your living room. After she stopped shrieking and ushered the bat out through an open screen, she searched her house the point of entry.

In her loft, Holloway saw a window screen with a crack at its corner no wider than a pencil. She figures the bat landed on the screen and crawled until it found the slit. It wriggled into her home and gave her “the thrill of (her) summer” by swooping overhead as she was reclined, reading a book on her living room couch.

Joe Page of Talkeetna wrote that bats have roosted in the roof of his house for the past 20 years. Though he likes them, he is ready for the bats to stop cohabitating. In summer, he sometimes hears them rustling in his roof insulation.

“We've seen them as late as October 20,” Page wrote in an email. “This leads me to believe that they hibernate, though I didn't hear them rustling about this spring until the end of May, which could indicate migration.”

Thinking the creatures may be compromising his insulation, Page has plans to pull off his roofing in April or May of next year and then seal the bat-access points.

“This might undercover some of the mystery of whether or not they hibernate,” Page wrote. “If you know any chiroptologist (bat scientist) who might have advice or would like to be on hand for the unveiling, let me know.”     

* * *

This fall, a science teacher in North Pole instructed her students to place in the woods behind the school a moose head left over from hunting season and two goat heads. In their “Maggot Lab” marked with crime-scene tape, students in Elizabeth Beks’ forensic science classes documented what insects occupied the heads at what times. Knowing the type of insect on a carcass can help an investigator reveal how long a victim has been dead.

Beks, who teaches forensics, anatomy and advanced-placement biology at North Pole High School, recently teamed with Derek Sikes, curator of insects at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, who did his graduate work on insects that help reduce carcasses to nothing. At his urging, Beks had her students stick a thermometer within a mass of moose-head maggots, the offspring of blowflies that are often the first insects to arrive after a body falls.

Khalil Steward, a student in Elizabeth Beks’ forensic science class at North Pole High School, with a moose head soon to host warm, wriggling maggots.

PHOTO: Courtesy Elizabeth Beks.

In early fall, when the air temperature was 48 degrees Fahrenheit, the ball of maggots was 120 degrees, Beks reported. Days later, the outside temperature was 37 degrees and the maggot mass was 99 degrees “and steaming nicely for the students’ enjoyment,” Beks wrote in an email.

“Who would have guessed that the hottest-blooded animals in September, when temperatures are in the 30s, are blowflies?” Sikes said.

Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

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