by Gregory Turner Photos by John Chenger
In celebration of Bat Week and Halloween, what can be more fun than learning about these fascinating mammals and some of the conservation efforts underway? Did you know that bats are the second most diverse group of mammals following rodents, and that close to one out of every four mammals on the planet is a bat? In fact, bats have evolved to live on every continent except Antarctica and exploit all sorts of food resources that include nectar, seeds, fruits, insects, and even bats that catch and eat frogs and fish. There are also several species of vampire bats in Central and South America that live off of the blood of other mammals and birds who have inspired dozens of books and movie series.
Bats have inspired humans for decades. It was the echolocation bats use that inspired scientists to develop radar, and the saliva of vampire bats help lead to medications like blood thinners that can help people with strokes and blood clots.
Bats have generously provided many services to us with little acclaim. We obtain about 80 different medicines from plants that rely on bats for their survival. Do you enjoy eating Avocadoes, bananas, or dates? There are over 300 types of fruits like these that are only pollinated by bats! For the adult readers that may enjoy a nice margarita, you got it, the Agave cactus used to make tequila blooms only at night for bat-assisted pollination.
Here in Pennsylvania, all nine of our resident bat species consume insects. It is estimated that an adult bat may consume up to 4,500 insects in a single night, which a single bat may consume close to one million bugs per year! And it’s no wonder they are sometimes called the farmers friend, bats provide an average savings of $74 per acre on crop damage from the insects they consume. That adds up to about a $300 million dollar saving each year in Pennsylvania alone!
Knowing how valuable bats are to our ecosystems and our way of life is why there has been so much concern for bats that are now dealing with a new disease called white-nose syndrome. This disease was discovered in New York in 2006 and spread rapidly across North America. Currently it is found in 35 States and 7 Canadian provinces. It arrived in Pennsylvania in 2008 and took just a few years to spread across the whole state, killing over 98% of all our hibernating bat species. There are numerous threats to bat populations, but this disease is clearly the biggest threat to bats and is a major focus of active conservation by wildlife professionals.
While this is a national issue with many scientists dedicated to this issue, there are conservation actions going on locally in Pennsylvania to monitor and help recover these species. Since adult female bats group together in summer to raise their young, many people have joined the program called the Appalachian Bat Count, where they safely monitor the number of bats annually. This information allows managers to track population changes and reproductive success. Caves and mines that harbor remnant populations of white-nose syndrome survivors are sometimes gated to eliminate disturbances by curious humans exploring the underground while the bats hibernate, helping them save precious energy stores so they can survive the winter. Research done in Pennsylvania has also shown that colder temperatures in caves and mines where bats hibernate slows down and decreases how much disease the bats get. Recently, a local cave near Spruce Creek, Huntingdon County, that was once a commercial cave was purchased by conservation groups and State and Federal agencies. The cave is now gated to protect the hibernating bats and cave openings were manipulated to cool the internal temperatures for the hibernating bats.
Since this effort started, the site has seen an increase in the number of bats using the site as well and an increase in the species of bats. There is also important research going on to reduce bat exposure and lower disease severity by treating a small number of these hibernacula with a non-toxic substance. Creating a few refugia may not seem like a lot, but it is helping local bat populations stabilize and recover, while giving the bats precious time to adapt to this new threat.