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Mighty Oak Monday: Melanie Carolina Berger

Imagine driving down a country road late at night, with an indiscernible acoustic pinging sound emitted from a machine on your dashboard. No, this is not the start of a horror movie— it's the beginning of a story about a bat biologist.

Her career choice didn't begin by mere coincidence. For years after earning her graduate degree, Melanie Berger studied bats for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). She spent her summers collecting data outdoors and her winter spelunking in caves in search of solutions to bat conservation.

It's a problem that became particularly pronounced right before Melanie was entering the field. Farmers would call the NYSDEC in the middle of winter to report scores of bats found dead in open fields. The seemingly apocalyptic scenario is caused by a foreign and invasive fungus that creeps onto bats and causes them to wake up more frequently during hibernation, reducing the fat stores that help them survive until the spring. Melanie has traversed New York State and the country to save these misunderstood creatures.

"Bats consume insects that are harmful for agriculture and in some parts of the world even pollinate plants," she explained.

Melanie eventually returned to New York State to enroll in ESF's Graduate School to pursue a doctoral degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management that aligns with the DEC's management plan for saving bats. Currently, her research is focused on mapping data collected from late-night drives through the woods to assemble an accurate population evaluation and compare against historical trends and data to reveal how resilient our bats are to disturbance.

"Through our field tracking method and modeling technology, we theorize we can estimate the abundance and trends of the bat community because we know the bats can't fly faster than the car," she said.

The data will inform decisions that will affect future bat management practices. The stakes are high, but Melanie couldn't love what she does more.

"I had three favorite animals as a kid: wolves, tigers, and bats. Being focused on bats for my career is a dream come true," Melanie said.