Keeping Tabs on Bats

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
USFWS/Ann Froschauer

“People are not going to care about animal conservation unless they think that animals are worthwhile.” ~ David Attenborough

Seven years ago, when Scott and I visited Bracken Cave — summer home and nursery to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats — we knew that the fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd) had already decimated some 80% of hibernating colonies of bats all over the United States. This ‘white-nose syndrome’ was waking bats up during their annual winter slumber, causing them to essentially starve to death from an increased metabolism and no food.

Last May, Pd was detected in Bracken Cave.  What does this mean for the Mexican free-tailed bat? Maybe nothing. This bat doesn’t hibernate in Texas — they migrate instead. Those that do over-winter stay active by coming out during warm nights, entering something more like torpor instead. Ours is a seasonably long tropical climate that is winter on the Houston Gulf Coast. Many bats survive it unscathed.

But the fungus arriving in Texas means it is most likely here to stay. They will have to adapt to it just like other bat species. Thank goodness the people with Bat Conservation Int’l are on top of it, watching and logging their numbers. An 80% reduction of the most resilient and abundant bat species in the United States would be catastrophic for us humans who rely on their free ‘pest control’ services. We’d better pay attention.

Last Friday, I watched for the first time in my hometown as 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats emerged out from under the Waugh Bridge. On Monday, I helped 4th graders at the county fair appreciate these beautiful creatures with my fellow Master Naturalists.

This land is your land, this land is my land. This land is their land too. Join me as I appreciate bats for all they do for us, largely unnoticed.

~ Shannon @ DirtNKids Blog

Caring Houstonians rescue drowning bats, Harvey flood 2017.
CBS News

[Email readers: Above is an embedded YouTube video. You will have to view it at the blog.]

My Super Hero — The Bat

How many insects do 20 million bats eat each night?

250 tons. That’s the equivalent to 10 train cars in tiny insects … every night.

With all those insects each night, they must make a lot of poop.

Yup. In fact, there is so much poop — called guano — that ammonia levels in the roost (due to the dermistid beetles in it) rise to toxic levels for humans. They have evolved a biological way to buffer their blood with increased CO2 so that the ammonia doesn’t damage their lungs. A treasured organic fertilizer, guano is also an excellent compost activator, the diverse bacteria colony speeding up the decomposition process of slower organics in one’s garden.

How big is a bat family?

Bats are social and can live to be 10-20 years old. Bats in Bracken cave are flying with their great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmothers!

https://media.istockphoto.com/vectors/realistic-looking-maragarita-cocktail-vector-id491231648?k=6&m=491231648&s=612x612&w=0&h=NFDXBjqkNmow_tTmcl_TsStltpH6OqL59nwOk_NwkpQ=What foods that we eat (or drink) can we thank the bats for?

Banana, cacao, dates, cashews, mango, figs, cactus fruit, tequila … all pollinated at night. Unlike the honey bee, which is not a native and typically managed by humans, bats carry on with their chore without our help. Without bat-pollinated margaritas, human parents may go extinct.

Without feathers, how does a bat even fly?

Its extended finger appendages and thin skin membrane create lift. They are the only true mammals that can fly, not just glide.

How fast is a bat?

The Mexican free-tailed bat is very fast, called ‘the jet of the bat world.’ They can fly more than 250 miles in one day during their migration.

How can they see where they’re flying at night?

Bats have excellent eye-sight — better than humans — but they use echolocation to find prey in the dark. They emit high frequency sound waves, a biological sonar, then listen for the return of that sound bounced off of the object. They can pinpoint a mosquito flying near your head, swoop down, catch and eat it, and not touch a single hair on your head. SUPER. POWER.

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16 thoughts on “Keeping Tabs on Bats

  1. It has been disheartening to watch white nose syndrome march across the map of the US, Shannon. Mike and I saw our first large bat swarm at Carlsbad Cavern a few years ago, and it was an unforgettable experience.

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    1. Bats are literally everywhere. The matriarchal colony here in Texas is the largest in NA — I believe maybe even in the world. Extraordinary little creatures!

      If you ever get to Texas in the summer, you’ll have to put Bracken Cave on your list, Tanja. If not, there are smaller colonies all over, even here in Houston.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s less batty in Colorado than in Texas–we typically see only one or two bats during dusk in the summer in our neighborhood. Did you know that Garden of the Gods is home to a few species of migratory bats during the summer? Mike and I attended one event a few years ago, during which we watched their crepuscular emergence, and listened to recordings of their echolocation signals. Fascinating!

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  2. Thanks for the interesting info!
    Although we’ve been living here in Fritztown for 6 years now, we haven’t been to the “Bat Tunnel” yet. I think we need to put that way up on our bucket list.

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    1. Yes! Definitely make it a point. Most are completely unaware of them, being nocturnal in their beneficial work. It’s easy to appreciate the bird, the bee, the butterfly — we can see them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The first time I saw live bats was at Carlsbad Caverns. I’ve not been to Waugh Bridge, but I believe there are a few members of the Galveston Master Naturalists who are involved in the monitoring there. I didn’t realize until last year that they can be seen outside Fredericksburg, too — at Old Tunnel State Park. They really are amazing creatures — this is a great overview. I’ll bet the kids enjoyed learning about them, too — at least, I hope they did.

    And, yes: I laughed at this: “Without bat-pollinated margaritas, human parents may go extinct.”

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  4. An absolutely fascinating commentary on these astonishing fellow mammals, Shannon. The expression “blind as a bat” reveals just how ignorant and shallow humans can be. My best wishes to each bat in Bracken Cave, and to all your fellow Houstonians for rescuing each bat threatened with drowning. 🙂

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    1. Yes, Bill. Some people give me real hope. I’m glad you enjoyed the video as much as I did. 😀

      The real problem with human understanding of our non-human compatriots is that we are always comparing them to ourselves. Of course, that is the most WRONG way to explore and appreciate any other species, most of whom have many more super powers than we do! Once we learn to celebrate all our differences as we plan our own survival and success, we can carefully consider that this earth is home to many, many others. We are all inextricably linked together, partners in life and death.

      You don’t need me to tell you that humans are hugely impactful on the earth biome. Our super power is a prefrontal cortex, cognitive ability which can determine whether our impact supports and sustains an environment for all … or destroys it. Which path will we choose?

      Like

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