Changing Planet

Halloween Trick: Technology Reveals Airborne Creatures of the Night


Researchers are using sophisticated technology like Doppler weather radar to study the aerosphere — the air and the organisms that migrate and feed within it.

“The air is full of life, often unnoticed,” said Elizabeth Blood, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Biological Infrastructure, which funds the research. “The skies hold secrets about animals that live at least part of their lives there. Research in aeroecology is opening a window into this unseen world.”

Thermal infrared image of flying Brazilian free-tailed bats in Texas by Thomas Kunz, Boston University

Biologists and atmospheric scientists engaged in aeroecology study how and why airborne organisms — bats, birds, arthropods and microbes — depend on the support of the atmosphere closest to Earth’s surface.

aeroecology2.jpgAeroecology integrates atmospheric science, earth science, geography, ecology, computer science, computational biology and engineering.

In contrast to animals with a strictly terrestrial or aquatic existence, says aeroecologist Thomas Kunz of Boston University, those that routinely use the aerosphere are immediately influenced by changing atmospheric conditions like winds, precipitation, air temperature, sunlight — and moonlight.

Brazilian free-tailed bats on Doppler radar images by Thomas Kunz, Boston University

Information in the aerosphere, scientists are finding, can help us understand how animals respond to altered landscapes and atmospheric conditions.

Thermal imaging cameras, which record temperature profiles of animals usually invisible at night, allow biologists to count numbers of animals like Brazilian free-tailed bats.

“Using NEXRAD Doppler weather radar, we can distinguish the movements of birds vs. bats, based on their patterns of daily and nightly dispersal,” Kunz said. “With NEXRAD radar, we can also identify and document the movements of animals during migration.”

Organisms that use the aerosphere, like birds and bats, are influenced by an increasing number of man-made conditions and structures: lighted towns and cities, air pollution, skyscrapers, aircraft, radio and television towers, and communication towers and wind turbines.

“In addition, human-altered landscapes are affected by deforestation, intensive agriculture, urbanization and industrial activities,” Kunz said . “These factors are rapidly and irreversibly transforming the habitats upon which airborne organisms rely.”

More from National Geographic News:

Hi-Tech Bat Detector Sheds Light on Shadowy Species

Bat Patrol from National Geographic Magazine

(includes multimedia demonstration of bat-tracking radar)

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Rob G

    Hi David, love this particular blog!
    It has stirred up a question that has been on my mind and, I’m sure, thousands of others… so please forgive me if this sounds a little off topic.
    I realise this could be taken as a rather silly question and that I’m opening myself up to conjecture, but my fascination for capturing images via frequencies unseen by the human eye leads me to wonder if this technology could ever be used to point up skywards on a more regular basis – more specifically, when the space shuttle settles to dispose it’s payload at around 300 miles high.
    It seems there is often a lot of sporadic alien activity (both on an organic and metaphysical level)going on up there that NASA may be willing to disclose. Is there any possible way that National Geographic could look into unearthing, exposing and educating the rest of the world as to the nature of these unexplained anomalies might be?
    There are countless visual records which show “creatures”, “critters”, “tethers” and “spiral-type”, “space serpent” creatures darting around in the upper atmosphere whose existance have not been fully explained or officially accounted for… and I think any investigative initiative on National Geographics part could lead towards becoming a story of the century.
    Checkout the following link for an introduction to what I’m talking about:


    There are many more mentions made which I’ll gladly send through to you if any further interest is sparked.
    Best Regards,
    Rob Greaves (your ex-colleague in S.A)

  • Rob G

    Oops, please forgive me for the few typos in the above… R

  • David Braun

    Thanks Rob — it’s great to read your comments here.
    I’ve not heard of this before, but I can ask around. It would not be surprising that there are many different things to be observed in different frequencies. The more sophisticated our technology becomes the more phenomena we find to observe.
    We have covered the search for extraterrestrial life a number of times, and I refer you to a story we did last year ( an earlier one (
    I’m certain that no one has yet found scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life–it’s not the kind of thing that can be kept secret, in my view. However, I’m also certain that some day we will find life somewhere other than Earth–and when we do it will be one of the biggest stories of all time, even if the alien lifeform is some kind of microbe.
    One problem for us in our search for ET is that we may not know what to look for. The biology or technology signatures of alien life may not be at all comparable to our own. We may have been looking at those signatures all along, but not been able to recognize them for what they are.
    Meanwhile, we keep on discovering new species on Earth–and some of them are pretty bizarre:
    I would not be surprised if there are species still to be discovered in the upper atmosphere–although it seems unlikely that anything large would have gone unnoticed so far.
    It’s an interesting subject, that’s for sure.

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