How WEC Works: Morgan Hughes
Morgan Hughes is a WEC master’s student in Dr. Holly Ober’s lab. She is working to characterize the diets of bats in the southeast and Georgia.
When did you know you wanted to work in wildlife? Is there an origin story?
I always knew I wanted to work with animals, so I studied to be a veterinary technician in high school.
Then I did some backpacking with the Student Conservation Association—quick plug, everyone should get their teenagers involved in the SCA, and undergrads should look to it for summer internships.
Through the SCA I discovered the West, wilderness and backpacking.
Where did you work with them?
The first summer was in Sawtooth National Forest, in Idaho. We were out for four and a half weeks, and in that time the only people we saw were one group of boy scouts, and an elderly couple who were hiking with pack goats.
Yes. It was a man in his eighties, with 8 pack goats, and a woman in her seventies.
They were using them to carry their stuff while they were hiking?
Yes! And we were around 20 miles from the nearest road! They were some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.
Anyway, after that I did some research on the internet for careers that would allow me to be in nature and work with wildlife, and wound up choosing wildlife ecology.
Also, we had peach trees in my yard growing up, and we covered them in nets, which I spent a lot of time removing animals from. That might have had a lot to do with it too.
What’s one word that describes how you work?
I’m not very good at streamlining things, so I go on tangents. The other day I spent a few hours learning about echolocation even though it has nothing to do with my project. Sometimes the tangents end up being useful in the end and end up generating new ideas.
Except that you’re studying bats!
Well yeah, but I didn’t need to know how the different families keep themselves from going deaf in different ways.
What’s your favorite organism you’ve studied and why?
Bats! That’s why I picked them.
They don’t die from things that it seems like they should die from, like rabies. They have a really fast metabolism, but live for a long time. They can store sperm and are one of only three types of animals that has a period. They are super important economically. Their heart rate can go from twenty beats per minute to six hundred in the blink of an eye, and even get up to around a 1300 bpm.
Also, they have personality. They’re very intelligent. When you have one in your hand, you can see them thinking.
Thinking about how to escape?
Maybe trying to figure out what happened, and why they’re being abducted!
They get very angry at first, but then they calm down and start chattering to themselves, like they’re just processing everything. They stop trying to get away for a while.
Fish are also really cool!
What did you do with fish?
I worked almost three seasons electroshocking fish.
We would remove the invasive species either via electroshocking and with a chemical. This reduced competition for natives like the Bonneville Cutthroat trout.
It was a lot of fun, because we ran into a lot of moose. Once, I ran into a calf and mother. That was scary.
What’s the story there?
We had to remove beaver dams so the chemical could go through the whole river (it only effected fish). At first I felt bad for destroying the beavers’ homes, but then they rebuilt them in a day and a half.
Wading through ten foot tall reeds, I came around a corner and found myself face to face with the mother. She was angry, so I turned around and ran until I made it to the truck.
We would also raft down the most beautiful rivers!
We would raft to an area, shock the water to stun the fish, then remove the invasive ones and allow the natives to go free.
What’s an unexpected experience you’ve had because of your work?
Well, what do you want to hear about? Bears, moose, fish, Peru?
One time in Utah I was doing elk work for my undergraduate. I knew the road really well from the summer before, and I tried to take a short cut while driving home one winter night. I was in four wheel drive, and I was slipping and sliding down this mountain. I got to the bottom, and there was a beaver dam in the middle of the road. Something like ten feet of water. I turned around, but couldn’t get up the mountain.
I only had about a quarter tank of gas left at that point. I only had one sweatshirt, and it was -20 degrees out although I am probably being a bit dramatic there. It was so bad. So I made a fire, then put rocks in the fire for a few minutes before bringing them into my car to warm the car. That’s how I wound up getting through the night.
Then in the morning people came with four wheelers, and it took them until the afternoon to get me out.
You are a pilot too, right? How did you wind up doing that?
I was in civil air patrol in high school, which is basically the civilian air force. As part of that, you can do a free flight every month.
I did one, liked it, applied for a scholarship and got it. That paid for most of the flight school.
It took three and a half years, and it took a lot of hours. I think I spent more hours on that than real school.
I’m now certified on a Piper Cherokee. It’s amazing when you’re up there alone.
I would never do it as a career, though. Being a wildlife pilot is so dangerous.
What’s your go-to tool?
A watch! It’s incredibly useful to not have to pull your phone out all the time.
For a bat researcher, the responsible answer is Clorox wipes. We go through about a can of them a day wiping all the equipment down.
White nose syndrome. It’s a disease that came to North America from Europe in 2006. It was first detected here in a bat population in a tourist cave in New York. It’s a fungal disease that effects bats by disrupting the membranes on their skin, making them lose water faster. They’ll be hibernating, and have to wake up to go find water. Each time they do, they use a lot of their energy reserves. After waking up a few times, they starve to death before spring comes. In some caves in Pennsylvania it’s had up to a 99% death rate, and it’s spreading. It just jumped to Washington State last year.
Recently, they found out that white nose is very susceptible to UV radiation, so that’s a potential treatment. They’ve also developed a fungicide, but they’re worried it will affect the cave biome.
A lot of research money has gone into finding a solution, because bats are worth billions of dollars economically.
Pest control. They eat moths that grow from cotton bollworms and corn ear worms, along with some beetles and hemipterans.
How do you manage your time?
Working nights has always been great for me. I think better at night.
So working with bats is great because I can go out to work at 5 in the evening, come back at 4 in the morning, sleep until noon, and then I have the rest of the day to be productive.
How do you balance long periods in the field with your personal life?
I schedule two days a month to call people, then spend those two days entirely talking to friends. Also, your co-workers become your friends. It is harder to balance the constant need to move.
Do you have any wildlife jokes?
They’re very bad:
Why can’t a seagull fly over the bay?
Because then it would be called a bagel!
What are you currently reading?
Well, a few of my favorite books are The Poisonwood Bible and The Secret Life of Bats. I was reading John Muir’s short stories: The Wild Muir, but I lost that book in Peru.
Let’s talk about Peru.
I was in the Peace Corps there. It was a big, defining period in my life; I think it’s pretty defining for everyone. I lived in a town called Tongorrape on the northern coast, in the department of Lambayeque. We were in a dry forest, right on the border where it switches from lowland Algarrobo forests, into the more diverse mountainy areas. It was a really cool ecosystem, but a depressing place because the deforestation was insane. Even while I was there I saw about 5-10% of the remaining forest cut, just in those two years.
I lived with a host family on a mango and passionfruit farm. We grew all of our own food. I worked in reforestation, trash management, and education.
What I really discovered is that I love teaching. That shifted the focus of my life, and now I try to have a teaching aspect to whatever I do, wherever I am.
How’d you teach the kids?
We did a lot of games. For example, we had a climate change game. We would start with a set number of solar rays, which would be played by 10 kids. They would have to run from the Earth’s surface (which was one wall) to the upper atmosphere (which was another wall), without getting caught by the kids playing as carbon dioxide molecules.
I’d slowly add carbon dioxide molecules as the game went on, announcing, “Now we’re burning paper! Now we’re driving cars!”
Then I would say, ” Now we’re planting trees!” and take some of the carbon dioxide molecules out, making it easier for the solar rays to reach the other wall.
It turns out that people who live in areas where it’s 100 degrees all the time innately respect climate change. The same in places without much water.
The parents were very open to it too. The town I traveled to teach in was 8 hours by foot or six by horse from the nearest road, which wasn’t even paved. They have power and potable water in this town, because they’re an incredibly organized community.
I was speaking with the parents about climate change, what causes it, and what they can do to prepare for it: ways of composting, using drip irrigation vs flood irrigation, etc. One old man, looking at the list of things that cause climate change, pointed out that he doesn’t do any of those things, and that my country (America) does. We need to be cognizant of our effects on the rest of the world.
My time in Peru solidified my idea that I don’t want to work in the US. We already have the infrastructure and the biologists required for effective conservation. Places like Peru, where a park the size of Massachusetts will only have one biologist, need more help.
If you could go back in time to when you started college and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you say?
I don’t know if I would say anything! I think the mistakes are what make you who you are. Also, don’t pigeon hole yourself. We feel the pressure to pick one specialty early on in order to advance because it seems like everyone else knows what they want to do. I think it is important to work across agencies and across taxa early on. It is good experience and you won’t end up dedicating a 5 year phd to something you don’t love.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?
I’m looking for volunteers for the field season, starting in April and running through the middle of August! A lot of my field locations are in the Gainesville area. If anyone wants go out one weekend and catch bats, shoot me an email!
This interview by Rhett Barker, and lightly edited for clarity by Rhett Barker and Claire Williams.
Thanks to Morgan Hughes for sitting down with us.
To learn more about the Peace Corps, click here.
To learn more about the Student Conservation Association, click here.
To learn more about the UF WEC program, click here.