When you find the only mammal on earth that has developed the ability to fly, it’s definitely interesting. When you realize that one single member of that species can eat up to 1,200 insects an hour, it becomes that much more intriguing. And if the species also helps to pollinate crops and spread fruit seeds, then looking out for its health and welfare is critical. In this case, we’re discussing the role of the bat in nature, a creature too often maligned and misunderstood.
Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo’s Linda Tomas, Animal Care and Registrar for the Zoo, has made protecting bats part of her life’s work. A visit to her office is a peek into her passion, with photos of bats, bat calendars, and bat books surrounding her desk. The first idea she’d like to dispel is that bats are somehow vicious. “When you see the photos of bats with their mouths open, they’re echo-locating,” she explains. Echolocation is a kind of sonar used by bats to emit sounds, and they then listen to the echoes from those sounds to locate objects—and avoid bumping into them. “They don’t want to come near you,” Tomas said.
There are 40 species of bats in the United States; Connecticut is home to eight of them. They are: the Little Brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), the Big Brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), the Eastern Long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), the Tri-colored/Eastern Pipistrelle bat (Perimyotis subflavus), the Silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), the Hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus), the Eastern Red bat (Lasiurus borealis), and the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis). The Eastern Small-footed bat (Myotis leibii) has not been has not been recorded in the state in several decades and is listed as a species of special concern in Connecticut.
Some of the fear of bats arises from the fact that they can carry the viral disease rabies, but the truth is less than 1 percent of all bats are infected with the virus. “Many times the virus is passed on by humans or animals handling bats that were found on the ground,” Tomas said, further defusing the idea that bats are dangerous.
On the contrary, bats are valuable and essential allies in nature, according to Bat Conservation International (BCI). In addition to helping to disperse seed and pollinate crops and fruit trees, even bat droppings are valuable as a rich, natural fertilizer. Bats are considered a “keystone” species, a species on which other species depend, and whose removal would significantly impact an ecosystem.
“If we don’t have bats, we’ll have lost a lot of diversity,” Tomas said. “They’re some of the most amazing animals. If a Vampire bat can’t get out to feed, other Vampire bats will return to feed it (through regurgitation). Bats have been known to foster orphan babies. And many female bat species live in maternity colonies to raise their young, identifying their own offspring by their calls.”
Bats in Connecticut, particularly the Little Brown bat, are being infected with a deadly disease called White Nose Syndrome (WNS). Named for the white fungus that appears on the muzzle and wings of a hibernating bat, WNS has spread rapidly across the country since first appearing in New York in the winter of 2006-2007. WNS has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America. Scientists are studying the fungus and seeking ways to control it.
At the Zoo, bat houses are being installed by the Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo 4-H Club to provide protected sites for summer hangouts. The Rainforest Building offers an exhibit with a colony of Common Vampire bats, in their own cave-like dwelling, complete with stalactites and stalagmites. The Education Department is offering programs to educate people about the importance of bats to the environment, with talks given at various times during the day. More information about bats may be found by visiting the following websites: CT Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) (www.ct.gov/deep), Bat Conservation International (www.batcon.org), and Organization for Bat Conservation (www.batconservation.org).