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Bat Week celebrates misunderstood mammal

November 1, 2017
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

RAY BROOK - The annual Bat Week celebration culminated this week on Halloween, but bats - one of the world's most abundant mammals - are still facing threats.

Bat populations in New York have taken a huge hit in recent years due to white-nose syndrome, and the state is reminding people not to venture into bat caves, while at the same time there are efforts to help restore bat populations around the world.


Article Photos

A northern long-eared bat roosts on a ceiling tile in a church in Concord, New Hampshire.
Photo — Jomegat/Wikimedia

Eating and ecology

Many people are, let's say, not fond of bats. Maybe it's because they're essentially flying mice or maybe it's because they're worried about the animals getting tangled in their hair.

Whatever the reason, bats have earned a bit of a bad reputation, that, if more people knew the roll they played in the natural world, might not be so ubiquitous.

According to Bat Conservation International, one of the sponsors of Bat Week, bats play an out-sized roll in our ecology and provide huge economic benefits for people.

"Throughout the United States, scientists estimate, bats are worth more than $3.7 billion a year in reduced crop damage and pesticide use," BCI says. "And that, of course, means fewer pesticides enter the ecosystem."

Pregnant or nursing bats - females typically have one pup each year and feed them milk - may eat up to its body weight in insects each year. But eating insects isn't the only benefit bats provide.

Not all of the 1,300 or so bat species worldwide eat insects, and the bulk of those that don't consume pollen, much like humming birds. And just like humming birds and bees, some bat species also act as important pollinators.

For instance, several species of bat in Mexico seek out the flower stalks of the blue agave plant and are the sole pollinators for the aloe look-alike. In short, we, as a species, would not have access to tequila if not for bats.

BCI says that bats can also help spread seeds to deforested areas more effectively than other animals might be able to.

"Regenerating clear-cut forests is a complex natural process, one that requires seed-scattering by birds, primates and other animals as well as bats," BCI says. "But birds are wary of crossing large, open spaces where flying predators can attack, so they typically drop seeds directly beneath their perches.

"Night-foraging fruit bats, on the other hand, often cover large distances each night, and they are quite willing to cross clearings and typically defecate in flight, scattering far more seeds than birds across cleared areas."


Stay out of caves

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is warning people that entering bat hibernation areas this time of year is not only illegal, but also quite detrimental to the animals. White-nose syndrome, which has been affecting bat populations for several years, has decimated populations across the state.

The fungal infection, which causes bats to wake repeatedly during hibernation, was originally found in New York a decade ago. Since then it has spread to 30 states and five Canadian provinces.

Waking up during hibernation causes bats to burn through their winter fat stores more quickly, often resulting in the bats dying before winter ends. DEC says about 90 percent of all bats in the state have died since WNS was found.

Some bat hibernation locations, such as caves or abandoned mines, are marked and posted, but DEC says humans should avoid any area that could be home to wintering bats.

The northern long-eared bat was once ubiquitous across the state, but now sits at just one percent of its former population. The long-eared bat is protected by both state and federal law, as is the much less common Indiana bat.

The state is taking a cautious approach to bats now that populations have plummeted.

"DEC staff are working hard to protect bats in New York, and our ongoing research has clearly illustrated that white-nose syndrome makes bats highly susceptible to disturbances," DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a press release. "Even a single, seemingly quiet visit can kill bats that would otherwise survive the winter.

"If you see hibernating bats, assume you are doing harm and leave immediately."

DEC also said that anyone caught entering a long-eared bat hibernation site from Oct. 1 through April 30 may be subject to prosecution.

DEC has also imposed restrictions on commercial activities in the vicinity of long-eared bat roosting sites.


How to help

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service says there are numerous ways for the public to help bat populations recover.

Some simple steps include reducing or eliminating pesticide use or leaving dead trees standing.

"Bats are primary predators of night-flying insects, including many pest species," the USFWS says. "Feed a hungry bat by minimizing the use of pesticides in your lawn and garden.

"Leave dead and dying trees where they don't create a hazard these are favored roosting sites for bats."

Residents can also buy or construct bat houses, and should avoid disturbing bats even if they're not hibernating.

The DEC also says that residents should avoid handling bats at all costs, and offers tips on removing them from your home.

"If provoked or threatened, just like any other animal, bats will defend themselves typically by biting," the DEC says. "In general, bats are not dangerous animals and are very beneficial to our environment, so harming or killing these animals is wrong and unnecessary."



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