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South Bend's 'bat man' earns national recognition

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Aaron Corcoran knows many of us are creeped out by bats, by their erratic flight into the night and around our heads when we encounter them.

But the 33-year-old South Bend native discovered a profound appreciation for the winged mammals, and his research has shown they are more complicated than we thought.

Corcoran was the subject of national publicity this fall as his most recent study has made the rounds in scientific circles. Building on earlier work that showed a certain type of tiger moth could use sonar to divert a bat from its path toward dinner, Corcoran used the same technology to prove one bat species — the Mexican free-tailed bat — can react to the sonar sounds competitors emit, to block those sounds and push them off the trail of their prey.

It's been well known that bats use sonar, also called echolocation, to navigate their surroundings. But until now, scientists didn't know that others could use those sounds against them, although Corcoran points out that people have used sonar to jam signals since World War II.

Corcoran is a biology postdoctoral student with Wake Forest University and the University of Maryland, and most of the recent research was conducted in Arizona. He typically spends most of his summers conducting bat studies on location, typically out West or in the tropics, then returning to his home in northern California to crunch the data.

The Clay High School graduate attended Purdue University to study computer science but, deciding he wanted a career with more creative control, he switched his major to wildlife biology. He says although he'd been a kid drawn to the outdoors, studying biology, let alone bats, had never been part of the plan. But it turned out his computer background gave him an edge over other biology researchers.

"He was the perfect student to study sonar jamming," says Bill Conner, Corcoran's Wake Forest graduate mentor and a University of Notre Dame graduate who has been studying bats and moths himself for 26 years. A background in computer science "is rare for a biology student."

"He didn't need all that much help," Conner told the South Bend Tribune ( ) of Corcoran. "All you had to do was point him, and away he went and did a wonderful study."

Corcoran was captivated when he held his first bat, he says, noting how soft bats are and the cuteness of their faces.

"What I've come to love about them is they're so unique in so many ways," he says. "They're mysterious animals. They will live in the small cracks and fly into the dark night, so people don't have much interaction with them."

Corcoran's mother, Ann Hofsommer, says although her son has always been goal-oriented and ambitious — since fourth grade, he created a list of 10 goals for the upcoming year and then crossed them off as he met them — his interest in bats was a surprise.

"When I describe Aaron's research, my comments are often met with a puzzled reaction — like, 'Did I hear you right?'" Hofsommer described in an email. "Occasionally people are squeamish but more often interested in what and why he studies bats."

Bats are important, Conner says, because mammals have similar neural structures in their two ears. The findings might help blind people learn to navigate better. "It gives us hints about how our brains work, as well."

Sonar and radar engineers pay attention, too, Conner says. "They'd like to know the secrets of bats, for sure. We're just scratching the surface."

Corcoran's most recent work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, and he says he's funded for the next two years. He's drawing up plans now for his next research, which might focus on bat species not only in Arizona or Southern California, but possibly Ecuador or Costa Rica.

He and Conner note the growing awareness of bat species being decimated by white nose syndrome, which has already wiped out populations in Vermont and New York, for instance. That will affect the environment, Corcoran notes, because bats keep certain insects and moths in check.

Meanwhile, he and his wife, Lauren, welcomed a son this fall, so combined with calls from journalists since the study was published, he's been busy the last few weeks.

"It's an exciting time just trying to manage it all without getting too stressed," he says. "But it's fun. I love being a dad."


Information from: South Bend Tribune,

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