When people ask about wildlife in the Bighorns, the usual answer is, “We have moose, elk, deer, black bears, a host of smaller animals like marmots and squirrels, and many species of birds.” But the Bighorn National Forest is also home to seven species of the only flying mammal: bats.
In China, bats are represented in art as symbols of happiness and good luck. Bats are sacred in some places in India. But in the West, bats are viewed with superstition and fear. Bats began to get a bad reputation in the Middle Ages when stories about Vlad the Impaler spread around Europe. Vlad, or Count Dracula as he is otherwise known, is sometimes shown in bat form in literature and in films. The message: fear bats because they kill people.
In fact, bats are just misunderstood.
Wildlife biologists will tell you that bats are mammals because they have hair, can regulate their body temperature and bear live young and nurse them. The 1,300-plus bat species make up about 20 percent of earth’s mammal population. Bats live all over the world, except the Arctic, Antarctica and some isolated islands. They are divided into two main types. Megabats are the largest; flying foxes are megabats with wingspans that can reach 5 to 6 feet. Microbats are the smaller varieties, with the bumblebee bat the smallest, growing to only about 1.25 inches long and weighing around 0.07 ounces.
In the daytime, colonies of hundreds or thousands of bats hang upside down in any place that provides shelter, like caves, mines or barns. They sleep, groom and quarrel.
Like a lot of us, at night they go out to dinner.
All bats in the United States are insectivorous, except three species that eat flowers. Forty-seven bat species live in North America north of Mexico. Seven species are at home in the Bighorns.
Bats play important roles in the earth’s ecosystems by eating insects, pollinating plants and dispersing seeds to regenerate forests. Bats give us food like bananas, peaches and mangoes. Yes there are vampire bats, but only in Latin America and Mexico. Vampire bats drink blood from livestock and wild animals, about two teaspoons each night. Bats rarely bite people. Contrary to some beliefs, they aren’t blind and they aren’t attracted to your hair.
Bats live perilous lives. Snakes, hawks and owls are threats. Baby bats, called pups, can fly within three to four weeks from birth. In some caves, if a new pup falls from the cave’s walls, it will be devoured in minutes by carnivorous beetles on the cave’s floor. Pesticides threaten bats’ food supply. Fearful humans kill them.
Some bats migrate in the winter. Others hibernate to lower their body temperature in a deep sleep called torpor. If roused from torpor, they fly, expending energy, but there aren’t any insects to eat to replenish their strength.
Another threat is from white-nose syndrome, a devastating bat disease caused by a fungus. It was introduced in the northeastern U.S. and has been found in bat hibernation sites in 31 states and five Canadian provinces. It was recently documented in eastern Nebraska. White-nose syndrome has killed more than five million bats since 2006. A white fungus grows on the nose, ears and wing membranes. Their fat reserves are depleted and immune systems compromised. They behave abnormally, sometimes emerging too soon from hibernation and then either freeze or starve to death.
Researchers believe humans may carry white-nose syndrome from cave to cave on clothing and equipment, so the Forest Service has issued special orders closing cave hibernation sites during the winter. Four caves in the Bighorn National Forest are closed Oct. 15 through April 15 each year: Big Piney, Cliff Dweller’s, Eaton’s, and Tongue River. Registration and decontamination precautions are required to enter these caves.
Bats are important in maintaining the health of nearly all terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Bats are in crisis, but you can help. Roosting bats are easily disturbed, so leave them alone. Want fewer mosquitoes? Build a bat house. Insectivorous bats eat their weight in insects every night. Installing bat-friendly gates at abandoned mines and caves helps bats. Adhering to cave closures and decontamination protocols helps prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome.
You can learn more about bat conservation and bat house construction at www.batcon.org. The Bighorn’s special order is available online at http://bit.ly/2rzLkh5.
Susan Douglas is a public affairs specialist for the Bighorn National Forest.