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Sharlene Santana in Columns, Sept 2016

Friday, September 30, 2016 - 11:45

Batwoman may be just a comic-book character, but at the UW we have our very own. Her name is Sharlene Santana, and you will find her in an unusually tidy office in Kincaid Hall, dressed normally (i.e., no bat suits). That’s when she isn’t jetting off to Costa Rica, Grenada or a steamy jungle to conduct research on some of the 1,300 species of bat that exist worldwide. And when she isn’t out in the wild, Santana can be found at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, where she serves as curator of mammals. “People ask me what my favorite mammal is and I guess I should say my husband, but really, it’s bats,” she jokes.

Entering Santana’s office on a bright, summer day, a visitor is struck first by a glass-covered display of strikingly large insects mounted on the wall. Collecting insects is a byproduct of studying bats, because that’s what many feed on. Her office desk also features a few 3-D printed bats. On this June day, Santana, who’s wearing a carved necklace of tiny bats that she picked up at a meeting of the North American Society for Bat Research, points out a shelf in the corner of her lab. It contains about 15 jars full of—you guessed it—pickled bats.

How did this assistant professor of biology become so obsessed with bats? As a young girl growing up in Venezuela, she spent a lot of time outside at her grandmother’s house on the country’s eastern coast. There, she occasionally saw bats flying at night, feeding on her grandmother’s fruit trees. She was so enraptured that she decided to study the creatures, first as an undergraduate at Licenciatura en Biología, Universidad de Los Andes, Venezuela. That got her hooked. Ever since, bats have become her life’s passion. At the Burke, she endeavors to pass on her love for these odd, scary-looking, flying mammals to tours of schoolchildren. At the museum’s Meet the Mammals Day, slated for Nov. 5, children can examine bat specimens and even pet the little mammals. Santana, who loves teaching people of all ages about science, particularly enjoys helping them appreciate bats, the role they play in nature—and how they benefit humans.

“[Bats] provide important services to ecosystems,” she explains. “They eat, and thus control, insect populations. They eat fruit and disperse seeds through their guano, which helps with forest regeneration. They are pollinators, much like bees, of commercially important crops like bananas, mangoes and cocoa.”


Read the full article in Columns Magazine.

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