fb-pixel

BU’s renowned bat researcher Thomas Kunz dies at 81 of COVID-19

Dr. Kunz was a longtime professor and researcher at Boston University.
Dr. Kunz was a longtime professor and researcher at Boston University.

Tom Kunz believed that bats are misunderstood and as an internationally recognized professor and researcher at Boston University, he worked tirelessly to change the public’s perception.

“It’s easy to fall in love with them,” he told the Globe in 1981. “They’re beautiful little creatures.”

A biologist who studied the winged mammals for more than four decades, Dr. Kunz wrote or cowrote numerous books and articles across many disciplines, including physiology, ecology, conservation, and technology. He was also known for his devotion to his students.

Dr. Kunz, who perhaps inevitably earned the nickname “Batman” from generations of students, and who was famous for his bat-inspired Halloween costumes, was 81 when he died from complications of COVID-19 on April 13 in NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham.

Advertisement



An early fan of technology, Dr. Kunz had traveled to Texas to put multiple thermal-imaging cameras inside caves and under bridges where tens of thousands of bats lived and emerged in the evening. He then worked with computer scientists, who created algorithms that made it possible to track the bats’ behavior and determine their number.

In 2011, he was named a William Fairfield Warren professor, an honor that recognizes BU’s most distinguished faculty.

Later that year, he was hit by a car while attending a conference in Toronto. The accident left him with a head injury that effectively ended his career, and he spent the rest of his life in a rehabilitation facility, where he was visited often by former students and colleagues, and daily by his wife, Margaret, of Needham.

“He was absolutely at the top of his game,” said Mike Sorenson, who had chaired the BU department of biology when the accident happened and who recalled that Dr. Kunz had been in the midst of a number of research projects. “He was probably the most productive member of the BU faculty at the time, working as hard as he could as he always did.”

Advertisement



During nearly 40 years at BU, Dr. Kunz chaired the biology department, established the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, and won numerous awards. A permanent endowment in his name supports BU graduate students in ecology.

“His extraordinary energy and enthusiasm for science were his defining traits as an academic,” Sorenson said, adding that Dr. Kunz had a gift for bringing together scientists from different fields.

“Tom was way ahead of the curve when it came to interdisciplinary learning,” he said. “He was a person who would take an idea and say, ‘Let’s make it happen,’ and folks couldn’t help but go along.”

Dr. Kunz was naturally adventurous, Sorenson said. After helping to establish a research station in a rainforest in Ecuador on the Tiputini River in 1985, he traveled there regularly with BU students.

Sorenson recalled that on their first trip, Dr. Kunz and his students “were accosted by a group of indigenous folk – there was a story about a guy with a spear,” he said. “It all turned out lovely in the end, of course.”

Thomas Henry Kunz was born in Independence, Mo., in 1938, the second son of William Kunz and Edna Dornfeld.

In an autobiography that is posted online, Dr. Kunz credited his fifth-grade teacher, Alma Reed — who assigned children the task of caring for silkworm eggs that eventually grew into silk-spinning larvae — with inspiring his early interest in biology.

Advertisement



“Miss Reed lived only a five-minute walk from our house, and I remember visiting her after school hours to see her silkworms, birdhouses, flower gardens, and other menagerie that she kept,” he wrote.

“She was always happy to share her enthusiasm with anyone who would dare visit,” he noted, and added: “At the time I did not know the meaning of passion, but that’s what she must have had. To this day I think some of her passion for organisms must have rubbed off on me.”

After graduating from high school, Dr. Kunz enlisted in the Army. The following fall he entered what is now the University of Central Missouri, where he played football and earned a degree in biology. After graduation, he stayed on campus, enrolled in graduate school to pursue a master’s in education, and became coach of the freshmen football team.

He recalled walking across campus and spotting an “absolutely gorgeous redhead” named Margaret Louise Brown, who taught business courses. They married in 1962 and Dr. Kunz began teaching high school biology and coaching football in his hometown of Independence.

In the following years, Dr. Kunz developed his keen interest in bats. He graduated with a master’s in biology from Drake University in Des Moines and received a doctorate in systematics and ecology from the University of Kansas.

In 1972, while he and Margaret were expecting their first child, he accepted an offer to teach at Boston University and the couple moved to Wellesley, though they returned to Missouri for visits each summer.

Advertisement



Their daughter, Dr. Pamela Kunz, an oncologist who lives in Atherton, Calif., recalled childhood bat-studying excursions to barns and caves in Western Massachusetts, late-night conversations “talking bats” with her father, and the sight of live bats sheltered in the family fridge.

“It was very much a part of our upbringing,” she said, adding that her father’s students were frequent guests at the Kunz home.

Around the time of his accident, Dr. Kunz was focused on aeroecology, the relationship of winged creatures to the air through which they fly. He was deeply interested in the effects of wind turbines on bats and birds, colleagues said.

A species of bats found in Malaysia was named the H. Kunzi in honor of Dr. Kunz, who told the Globe in 1988 that “people fear them out of ignorance. They’ve been exposed over the years to all kinds of wives’ tales and folklore about bats.”

Pete August, a former student and recently retired professor at the University of Rhode Island, called his mentor a “wonderful, classic natural historian,” and a “very, very good teacher.”

“Everyone in his lab was an equal, whether you were an undergrad or a PhD student,” August said. “He exuded a love for whatever he was teaching — ecology, mammalogy, vertebrate biology — and always conveyed his absolute sincerity.”

In the classroom, Dr. Kunz was known for carefully grading papers.

Advertisement



“He was an excellent writer and had very high standards,” August said. “He impressed upon his students the importance of a coherent sentence.”

But it was field trips that Dr. Kunz treasured most. “He loved getting his hands dirty,” August said.

Dr. Kunz was an inveterate handyman who built treehouses, created jigsaw puzzles, and taught his children to use power tools and drive cars with stick shifts. He loved canoeing, bicycling, traveling with his wife, and spending time with family.

“He was handy and he was hands-on,” said his son David, who works in finance in New York City. “I might have seen him fall asleep at his computer, but he never missed a single one of my games.”

A service for Dr. Kunz, who in addition to his wife and children, leaves five grandchildren, will be held after the COVID-19 pandemic’s limitations on the size of gatherings are lifted.

Of all the lessons Dr. Kunz taught, August recalled, the most important was work-family balance.

“He was such a good father and a good husband and a good person,” he said. “He taught all his students that life is a complex equation. You have to live it in a balanced way.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmckenna6666@gmail.com.