Jenna Jarvis-accentsWhen Dr. Jenna Jarvis was a little girl, a relative made her a bat costume to wear one Halloween.

For a child fascinated with the creatures – one of the most misunderstood in the animal kingdom – it was a great costume choice, and the beginning of a lifelong obsession that has led to a very interesting career.

Today, as a new assistant professor of Biology and Environmental Health at Missouri Southern, Jarvis continues to be interested in bats, and is enjoying her role sharing her passion with students and faculty.

“When I was growing up, I loved zoos, aquariums and science centers,” she says. “That’s the type of place we went to on family trips. I love spiders, snakes and bats, things that most people hate.”

In graduate school, working on a degree in zoology, Jarvis wanted to study whole organisms instead of cells alone. She credits Dr. Michael Smotherman, her advisor at Texas A&M, with helping her maintain whole organism study. Since then, she’s fallen in love with the “adorable” creatures.

“People think bats are ugly and scary but most people haven’t really seen them up close,” she says. “They have big ears, big eyes and little goofy faces.”

Jarvis said most popular-culture beliefs about bats are partially or completely wrong. “Bats are not blind,” she says. “They don’t have eagle eyes but they can see something coming at them. They also do not want to get into your hair.”

Despite the creepiness factor many feel around bats, the typical North American variety are fairly safe, she says.

Vampire bats that drink blood are only found in South America. They cut animals, for the most part livestock, with their teeth and lap the blood up with their tongues. The hollow fangs of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula are another fiction.

“It’s true that bats can carry rabies,” Dr. Jarvis says. “But that’s also true of rabbits, skunks, raccoons, possums, even the cats and dogs we keep as pets if we didn’t get them vaccinated.”

In order to fly and detect prey, bats rely on a form of sonar known as “echolocation.”

bat“They constantly send out sound waves,” Dr. Jarvis explains. “They call infrequently while searching, and then, when they detect food, they call more frequently. They can tell the distance, size, shape and even texture of their targets.”

The topic has given Dr. Jarvis some great research. She has written two scholarly articles dealing with the timing of echolocation calls and sonar efficiency.

“(Bats) are massively important to agriculture and human health, especially in controlling crop pests and potentially disease-carrying mosquitoes,” she comments.

Bats pollinate over 300 types of plants. However, their role as a pollinator and pest eradicator is now being threatened.

In recent years, the bat population has undergone a serious threat from a fungal disease called white nose syndrome. Bats develop fungus in hibernation which causes itching sores. They wake up from hibernation and waste so much energy trying to find food that they die.

The illness, which has killed millions of bats in the northeast, is steadily moving west.

“There is a big push to find the cause of white nose syndrome and eradicate it,” she says. “The alternative could be economically devastating. It could also seriously degrade the biodiversity of these regions.”

Dr. Jarvis says her profession allows her to explore her passion for bats and other animals and spread awareness of the disease that threatens her favorite member of the animal kingdom.

“I like talking about science and getting paid for it,” she says. “I love sharing my love of biology with students who hopefully will go on to love the subject themselves.”