Of Bats and Men

Note: This is the fourth part in a blog series on The Nature Conservancy’s new artificial bat cave, an experiment to help stop the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease killing millions of bats. Read the previous blogs.

Gina Hancock, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, remembers with sadness her first experience as a bat conservationist.

The Conservancy had just purchased a natural cave with a large bat population. Soon after purchase, a group of trespassers had entered the cave and found bats. They took mud from the floor and used it to coat the bats, essentially gluing the creatures to the ceiling.

They then took spray paint and sprayed around the bats, to create a bat outline when the dead animals would eventually fall off the ceiling. Next to it, they scrawled, “Bats were here.”

“The thing is, these people were not trying to be mean or cruel,” says Hancock. “They were just thoughtless. They just didn’t understand that bats are fascinating, intelligent creatures.”

Humanity’s relationship with bats has often been a troubled one.

White-nose syndrome, likely brought here by humans, is one of the deadliest chapters in that relationship. But this time, there’s been a consciousness shift: A growing number of citizen-scientists are deeply interested in bats. They want to learn the different species, watch them, participate in research efforts.

And the passion of those bat lovers — coupled with the latest science — may offer the best hope for bat populations to emerge from the threats of white-nose syndrome. The strong private support for the artificial bat cave near Clarksville, Tennessee (the project has received no public funding) shows the public’s will to protect these once-reviled little mammals.

Bats in the Belfry

“Bats are mysterious creatures,” says Hancock. “They fly in the night. Most people don’t see them. That can make them prone to misunderstandings, to put it mildly.”

And for centuries, that’s been the human story on bats. They’ve been the subject of strange folk tales: bats will get caught in your hair, bats are blind, bats are dirty disease carriers.

Bats form the basis for the vampire story, and the current craze notwithstanding, this has not generally been a favorable comparison. (In reality, only three species of 1200 bats worldwide feed on blood).

Bats do carry rabies, and about two people die a year from this disease due to contact with bats. But keep in mind that 50,000 people worldwide die from rabies each year, most from contact with dogs. Education campaigns, improved vaccines and common sense (don’t handle bats) minimize the risk of getting rabies from bats.

Still, vampires and rabies do not equal great public relations. That’s why bats have long been persecuted. People dynamited their roosts. When I was in high school, a friend invited me to a bat shoot, an event where men lined up outside a barn at dusk armed with shotguns. When the bats began flying, they faced a wall of shotgun pellets.

My friend described how the bats, using their echolocation, tried to swerve and twist to avoid the lead pellets hurtling around them. He considered this not only a fun sport, but ridding the countryside of a real threat.

“There are still thoughtless people when it comes to bats,” says Hancock. “But we’re seeing a change. People do care.”

Bat Fan

To know bats is to love them. According to Bat Conservation International, a little brown bat can consume 1000 mosquito-sized insects in one hour. Throughout the United States, scientists estimate bats save $3.7 billion annually in crops and reduced pesticide use. Other species (although none found in Tennessee) are important for pollination and the dispersal of native plant seeds.

“You may not see these little guys flying around at night, but if we lose them, you’ll know it,” says Hancock. “We’ll feel their loss every day in some way.”

And more people are recognizing that bats are interesting animals worthy of observation and study. Bat emergences from caves or even city bridges are becoming popular tourist attractions. There are bat watchers, who record the different species they see, and even bat watching tours that visit hotspots around the globe. There’s an excellent organization, Bat Conservation International, focused exclusively on their conservation. Citizen-scientists sign up each year to help scientists track bat populations.

This interest is not without risk; bat enthusiasts entering caves could disturb bats or spread white-nose syndrome. But it’s better to have people loving bats than shooting or spray painting them.

The artificial bat cave is an experiment and has not attracted public funding. It has been entirely been funded by people who care about bats and cave ecosystems (and the Tennessee program is still raising money to complete the project).

“The loss of bats to white-nose syndrome could be one of the biggest extinctions of our lifetime,” says Hancock. “The role of science has so far been to document the demise. This is a wake-up moment for people who care.”

Another way to consider it: This is a small way to atone for our own species’ endless bad behavior towards bats. Certainly we owe them the experiment, to give them a chance to recover and continue to fly in our midst.

“We’re an organization of hope,” says Hancock. “I see hope in the growing number of people who recognize the importance of bats, who recognize what we could lose. Private donors are showing they’re willing to take a risk with the artificial bat cave experiment. They’re showing that it is not enough for science to just count dead bats.”

Photo: Ten million bats exit Frio Cave in the Texas Hill Country, a spectacle that has become a popular tourist attraction. Credit:  Matt Miller/TNC

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