The light is turning shades of blue and purple as the sun drops below the horizon. The air is cooling from a warm summer day. Crickets are beginning their night time singing, and through the sky comes the faint whirring of bats. Swooping and gliding through the air, indulging in an early evening snack. Some of my fondest memories growing up in Wisconsin start on nights like this. Watching the bats and reveling in the idea that there are finally warriors to take on the thick clouds of mosquitos that crowd the Wisconsin sky. I loved anything that would eat bugs; mosquitos are the Wisconsin state bird, after all. I was always amazed at the way bats took to the sky; dropping out of slumber in an almost synchronized fashion, swooping gracefully and clearing the pests surrounding me.
I knew early on the benefit of the bats regarding personal pest control but had yet to learn all the ways in which bats help humankind. Yes it is wonderful to have a night time warrior friend to clear the bugs from around our heads, but what else do they accomplish? It is thought that these flying mammals contribute over 3 billion dollars annually to pest control for farmers all across the United States. They clear cropland in a frenzy of feeding, each bat consuming up to or more than their body weight in pesky bugs each night. This fundamental trait of bats reduces the amount of chemical pesticides used on cropland, creating a feedback loop that saves farmers money, keeps pesticides out of watersheds, and in turn lowers health and food costs to customers (us). Bats unintentionally help farmers in another major way — pollinating fruit. Do you enjoy a margarita or tequila from time to time? Well you can thank bats; without night time pollination agave would never produce the fruits needed for that icy cocktail. Don’t imbibe alcohol? How about eating mangos, bananas or avocados? Bats to the rescue. Bats are the only natural pollinator for these fruits. When fruit bats feed on night flowers, spreading pollen from plant to plant, they also clear the flower of any parasites that may harm it in the future. Double whammy!
Bats play another crucial role in plant life and biodiversity as the world’s most prolific seed transmitters. Bats regenerate forests around the world by dispersing seeds and spreading guano accounting for nearly 95% of the first plants that sprout out of a new forest floor. Having few predators, they often fly long distances at night covering large open spaces. All the while spreading some of the most nutritious feces of any living species; Johnny Appleseed has nothing on bats. So to reflect; bats fertilize and distribute seeds in those hard to reach places, bats pollinate difficult species of plants, bats are living breathing insecticide keeping in check those destructive and disease spreading insects. And these are just the actions that benefit growth. But what else are bats capable of?
Bats as bomber pilots? Sure, why not. Shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor a dental surgeon named Dr. Lytle S. Adams came up with one crazy idea — utilize bats to plant and distribute hundreds of small incendiary bombs throughout Japan. Bats have an amazing ability to carry a large load in comparison to their size. Remember they eat their weight or more in bugs each and every night. Some species can carry almost three times their weight. Dr. Adams joined with thousands of other concerned Americans and sent his bat plan to the American Military and the top brass liked it. Once President Roosevelt signed off on the idea, Dr. Adams was directed to Army Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) along with several naturalist from the University of California who worked together to implement it. After an exhaustive search they realized that Mexican free-tailed bats had all the right stuff; they were numerous and powerful enough to carry the load, and they were easy to catch. The idea was simple; force the bats into hibernation, attach a clip from the small incendiary to the chest of the bats, put the bats into a cardboard contraption, fly them in a B-52 bomber releasing them at 5000ft., cardboard contraption breaks open, bats come out of hibernation in time while freefalling to roost under buildings eaves, then they would naturally chew off the clip holding the mini bombs. Once the clip was loose the bomb’s fuse would ignite and BOOM — off go hundreds of bombs strewn throughout the country in no particular order, creating chaos. Whew, that made me tired just typing it, but simple enough for the magical bats, right? Alas all did not go as planned. They had some trouble with the timing of hibernation; first they were coming out too late and splat, then they came out too early and created chaos at the test site. Then a careless act by a scientist released a number of bats with miniature incendiary devices attached, causing a hanger to be bombed and a general’s car to be lit aflame. Needless to say the 2 million dollar project was scrapped for a much more promising one, the Atomic Bomb.
Alright, so bats are amazing little flying mammals and there are a lot of bat species around the world, over 1,300 in fact. So they will be with us for a very long time, fulfilling their silent duty for centuries to come. Wrong. Or possibly wrong; it is our turn to help the bats. Some think that the Mexican free-tailed bat, those little bombers, may be dying off due to insecticide. Oh the irony. Then there is global climate change, an issue facing all living creatures in their own way, some being affected in ways that no one could have predicted. The bats are one such mammal. Humans have looked to alternative energy to slow the release of greenhouse gasses, one cause of global climate change. One piece of the greenhouse gas solution is wind farms, yet they are directly affecting bats. During bats migratory times in the fall, they seem to be attracted to the blades of wind turbines. Bats not only get caught in the blades themselves but as they come near to them the wind pressure change can crush their delicate little bodies in mid-air, stopping their hearts. Scientist have yet to figure out why they are more apt to be attracted to the turbines in the fall and have been working with the owners of wind farms. Together they have found that by furloughing the turbines a few hours around dusk for the month and a half that bats migrate, they can reduce the number of fatalities drastically. Unfortunately these are not the direst issues facing North American bats.
A more mystifying issue at hand is the rapid proliferation of a psychrophilic (cold loving) fungus called Pseudogymnoascus Destructans or White Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is thought to have come from Europe and East Asia, first appearing in the Northeast during the winter of 2006-2007. WNS has now spread throughout the east and in the last two years has been found in small pockets of Washington State. At this point scientist believe that over 5 million bats have succumbed to WNS. Bats that live in the colder regions tend to hibernate in humid cooler dwellings, a perfect environment for the fungus to survive. It can be spread by close contact of bats but can also live in the soil surrounding a cave. Bats are very social critters, huddling together during hibernation, especially the females. These attributes cause near-perfect conditions for a pandemic. WNS does not directly kill bats but can spread quickly, causing dehydration and an uncomfortable annoyance, waking the bats up from hibernation. Rising earlier than they should, the affected bats wander around disoriented and burn off crucial reserves needed to make it through the long hibernation. Unable to find food and relief from WNS, they become weaker and weaker until they perish. The fungus can also attack the delicate wing membranes of bats causing debilitating tears. It is thought that over 90%of the little brown bats in the North East Coast have died due to White Nose Syndrome in the last decade. And that is no good.
Scientists have yet to find a reliable way of combating WNS, but there have been several attempts in which they are slowing the disease’s progression. A plant that the bats have been helping throughout evolution may be the key to saving bats in the future. A group of scientist had been testing a natural bacterium, R. Rhodochrous, to see if they could elongate the shelf life of bananas for shipping. They planned on doing this by inhibiting fungal growth and thus extending ripening times. A grad student working on the banana project saw photos of the spread of WNS and had a winning idea: Try the bacteria on bats as well. The bacteria have been found in preliminary trials to feed off of the fungus, causing no negative effects on the bats themselves. They are now moving onto the next batch of studies to make sure that the bacteria will have no known side effects on the cave environs in which the bats live. Fingers crossed, little buddies!
At this point you may be asking yourself, what can I do? Similar to all ecological disasters popping up every day, this seems like a problem too big for each of us individually to make a difference. Oh but we can help our little bat friends. Bat detective is a website dedicated to an interesting world-wide citizen science project. They are asking people to join in by learning the different calls that bats make in your area. Then you can help scientist track bats around the world. Another great online resource is Bat Conservation International. The website is full of information. On it you can find other citizen science projects, places and safe ways to view bats, and plans on how to make bat houses as well as successfully getting bats to roost. Building and caring for a bat house is a tangible and meaningful way to help the local bat populations and helps keep them out of your attic. They can be the bug warriors in your backyard, create hours of entertainment, and be a wonderful learning tool for young and old alike. Or just learn about bats and teach others. Together we can build a band of bat warriors.
Humans and bats are intricately intertwined. Their future will directly affect ours just as their past has molded our present. Phil Richardson in Bats speaks to the evolution of fruit bats, which “branched off from primates, the group that contains monkeys, apes and humans. It is possible, therefore, that these bats are distantly related to us.”
New to the Fontana system is a great video resource called Kanopy. With a library card you can access this video library of over 30,000 titles. Try Bats in the search bar and see what you can find!
Books in Fontana Regional Library on bats:
Books on the continuing extinction crisis we face:
The Ends of the World; volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, and our quest to understand Earth’s past extinctions by Peter Brannen
Each of the blue links in this blog leads to another great online resource for learning all that you can about bats. It’s our turn to lend them a helping hand.
Amos, Amy Mathews. “Bat Killings by Wind Energy Turbines Continue.” Scientific American, 7 June 2016, www.scientificamerican.com/article/bat-killings-by-wind-energy-turbines-continue/.
Jemison, Micaela. “Not Just the Birds and Bees – 6 Fast Facts About Pollinating Bats.” The National Wildlife Federation Blog, National Wildlife Federation, 18 June 2014, blog.nwf.org/2014/06/not-just-the-birds-and-bees-6-fast-facts-about-pollinating-bats/.
Mart Miller Special to the Reformer. “Researchers May Have Found Solution to White-Nose Syndrome That’s Killing Bats.” The Brattleboro Reformer, Brattleboro Reformer, 1 Nov. 2016, www.reformer.com/stories/researchers-may-have-found-solution-to-white-nose-syndrome-thats-killing-bats,428973
Richardson, Phil. Bats. Firefly Books, 2011.