Popular culture and common myths perpetuate a fear of these misunderstood animals. They are more closely related to primates than rats and mice, they aren’t all rabid, and they don’t like to mess with humans. Bats want to do their own thing and be left alone. There’s no real reason to be scared of them.
Bats, on the other hand, have many reasons to be afraid. The challenges they face are enough to terrify any creature.
(One good-looking-not-so-scary pallid bat at Glen Canyon Recreation Area.)
You’ve likely heard of white-nose syndrome, a disease that has killed millions of bats. It predominately affects hibernating species and, at some sites, 90 to 100 percent of bats have died. The northern long-eared bat, little brown bat, and tricolored bat are among the species hit hardest in North America.
There is no cure for white-nose syndrome, and scientists from around the world are working to study the disease.
At Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, SCA interns are among the researchers gathering data to better understand white-nose syndrome and how to stop it. Ashley Xu, one of SCA’s NPS Academy interns, spent the summer collecting data to analyze how far white-nose syndrome has spread and which species are being affected.
(SCA intern Ashley Xu holding a western pipistrelle bat.)
“My favorite memory was the first time I had to take a bat out of the net it was captured in,” Xu says. “I was super nervous because I had never handled a bat before and I didn't want to hurt it. My heart was racing and I had such an adrenaline rush once I got it out. They sure are tough and feisty!”
Scientists rely on a combination of physical and acoustical data for a more complete picture of bats in the park. Below, an SCA intern at Glen Canyon in 2017 talks about how they gather and analyze that information.
Not all bats live or hibernate in caves, and the forests that many bats depend on for survival are disappearing at a frightful rate.
“I wish that more people knew that bats help our ecosystem,” Xu says.
The loss of natural places to live remains one of the most widespread threats for bats. Fighting back, SCA crews and interns remove invasive species that threaten important habitat for bats and install bat boxes with agencies like the NPS and U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
(Checking a pallid bat to see if there are any visible spots at Glen Canyon.)
Xu explains that protecting and providing homes for bats is positive for everyone. “They play a significant role in controlling insect populations. (Free pest control!!)” It’s no exaggeration—a little brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitos in an hour.
Bats on Public Lands
National parks and forests aren’t the only places you’ll find populations of bats and scientists conducting critical research.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages refuges, like Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, specifically with bats in mind. And public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are home to more than 60 percent of all of the United States’ bat species.
(This lesser long-nosed bat got into a bit of pollen!)
In 1994, SCA intern James Ronga worked with BLM scientists in Utah. “I rappelled into a literal bat cave with scientists to count the bat population resting on the ceiling of the cave,” he said. “We netted bats swooping over a pond to tag and track their population and spent the night sleeping under the stars.”
What can you do?
Despite the scary facts that bat populations face, there are ways to get involved. This past year SCA interns installed bat boxes, educated the public on the importance of bats, and conducted research. SCA alumni, like Dr. Johanna Kovarik, have gone on to study bats and caves. Dr. Kovarik got her start as an SCA intern at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and is now a cave expert with the USFS.
For anyone inspired to work with bats, Xu offers a bit of advice. “Go volunteer with bat researchers! You'll learn a lot about what goes into the whole process of capturing and monitoring them.”
(The SCA community crew in Seattle builds bat boxes with the USFS.)
These are some other ways you can help bats:
- Volunteer with local parks to remove invasive species that threaten bat habitat.
- Contribute to citizen science projects to collect bat data.
- Reduce your use of pesticides.
- Plant flowers to attract night pollinators.
- Install a bat box in your yard or community.
- Don’t bother bats, and call a professional if there’s one in your house.
- Keep an eye out for SCA internship opportunities focused on bat research, like these Winter Bat Monitoring Internships at Mammoth Cave National Park.
- Be a bat hero by celebrating Bat Week October 24-31st (and all year).
No matter where you live, there are most likely bats living nearby. With everyone working to raise awareness and debunking the negative myths about bats, there will be space to talk about how amazing bats are. Together our efforts can move the needle on bat conservation.
Interested in scientific research? Keep an eye on open SCA internship positions, here.