I’ve visited St. Louis’ Bellefontaine cemetery before, but never at night.
It’s really dark. The looming trees are black against the sky, where a half-moon is just barely visible behind some clouds.
I can see eerie lights and strange, shadowy figures moving among the gravestones.
As I move in for a closer look, one of the figures turns in my direction: “Hi, my name is Vona Kuczynska, and I’m a wildlife biologist and a student at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.”
OK, so the mysterious lights are just headlamps. And what look like ghosts, or maybe zombies, are researchers — looking not for the dead, but for the living.
Turns out all this nighttime activity is part of a larger effort to get an idea of the range of wildlife in the cemetery.
Scientists have already studied birds at Bellefontaine. On the night I visit, some people are looking at moths. Kuczynska is focusing on bats.
“When you’re holding a bat in your hand,” she says, “you just see how beautiful they are. And they have so much personality.”
“Bats absolutely have personalities,” Kuczynska insists. Some species are really gentle, she says, and don’t seem to mind being handled. “Whereas other bats — usually the bigger bats — are way more aggressive, and they’ll try to bite you, and escape, and do all these things,” Kuczynska says.
Kuczynska got to Bellefontaine before sunset, along with some other students, volunteers and wildlife specialists from Missouri’s department of conservation. They helped her set up four big nets — something like oversized volleyball nets, only with much finer mesh.
Biologists use the nets to catch birds, but Kuczynska says they can trap bats, too. Still, over the course of the evening, the researchers manage to snag only three: an eastern red bat and two big brown bats.
The elusive bats have a kind of biological sonar, called echolocation, that helps them avoid obstacles like nets — and find their insect prey — even in total darkness.
So to figure out which species of bat live in the cemetery, Kuczynska also uses a special bat detector called an AnaBat.
To show me how it works, Kuczynska carries one of the big brown bats they caught over to the device. It doesn’t look like much. It’s about the size and shape of a paperback book, lying in the middle of one of the cemetery’s winding paths.
But as Kuczynska approaches, holding the bat, the AnaBat starts clicking like crazy.
“The bat is making a lot of noises that we can’t hear,” Kuczynska says. “They’re not in the audible range. So the AnaBat is recording the noises and playing them back to us in a range that we can hear. And it allows us to see if there’s … bat activity in the area.”
The next day, Kuczynska analyzes the AnaBat’s readouts to see which species had been flying overhead. She says it’s not possible to tell individual bats apart, but she counts 58 calls, split about evenly between eastern red bats and big brown bats.
Seth Magle, who directs the Urban Wildlife Institute in Chicago, suspects that most of the species found in cities are using cemeteries as habitat, or to forage for food. But cemeteries aren’t just great places for spooky things like bats.
Like parks, golf courses and other urban green spaces, cemeteries can provide a refuge for all sorts of wildlife, including red foxes, skunks, woodchucks, opossums, white-tailed deer and beaver, Magle says, as well as fox squirrels, gray squirrels and “all the sort of usual urban residents that you would expect — rats and house mice and things of that nature.”
It’s easy to understand why animals would be drawn to a cemetery like Bellefontaine — it’s like a majestic, 19th century park, with thousands of big trees spread out over more than 300 acres. But Magle says even a cemetery that’s just grass and gravestones could have some value for wildlife.
“Species like coyotes, at least around here, are not terribly selective,” Magle says. “Seems like mostly what they’re looking for in these urban areas are rabbits, and rabbits like grass. So the rabbits will come in for the grass, and then the coyotes may come in for the rabbits.”
The idea of cemeteries as wildlife habitat may seem strange in America, with its mostly manicured grave sites. But it is common practice in England to let at least the older parts of cemeteries return to a more natural state.
Mandy Elford works as an ecologist for the government of Manchester, a city that’s actively trying to make its cemeteries more wildlife-friendly. “Nobody wants to go to an overgrown grave for a loved one,” Elford says. “But we can have little messy places here and there.”
With urban development and industrial agriculture, animals have to live somewhere, Elford says. Why not cemeteries?
How might the dead feel about having all this wildlife running around their graves?
Elford laughs and says she doesn’t think they’d mind one little bit: “Personally, I would be very happy.”