By Maymie Higgins
My street is a typical rural North Carolina subdivision with ecological features that influenced my home purchase. The narrow road entering the neighborhood begins at the top of a hill and quickly descends to a valley, where trickling just beneath is a tributary of Abbott’s Creek, part of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River System. The valley is an undisturbed riparian forest, thick with cypress, loblolly pine, dogwood and maple trees rising from a carpet of fallen leaves and pine cones. The road then sharply ascends, cresting at my home before starting to gently descend again as it reaches the cul-de-sac that punctuates the street at four-tenths of a mile. Because of this design and absence of thru traffic, it is an excellent street for kids to play, adults to walk and certainly for hill work in running. More importantly, the proximity to a water source provides an abundance of wildlife sightings, particularly passerines and small mammals but also raptors from time to time. In fact, just last week a Barred Owl provided my husband a jolt with a silent fly over just above his head. He never knew taking the garbage to the curb could be so thrilling.
In cooler months, I take my walks when the sun is high. But in the late spring and all of summer, I brave the mosquito laden dusk for an air show like no other. As I approach the valley, dozens of small brown darting masses appear above, moving in a way that seems sporadic to those who do not understand echolocation. Bats are not out of control. I stand there and giggle like a little girl as they zip towards my face and then bank right or left at the last moment. Do they think “My! What a big mosquito!” when they pick up the echolocation from my melon of a head? Bats are the only major predator of night-flying insects such as lacewings, cockroaches, gnats and of course, mosquitoes. A single big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) can eat between 3,000 – 7,000 mosquitoes in one night. Insect-eating bats in the United States likely save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion a year and possibly up to $53 billion a year, gobbling up insect pests that would otherwise damage crops. Fruit-eating bats are also pollinators and seed dispersers. Nearly 200 plant species are pollinated by bats, including bananas, peaches, dates, and figs, making them agriculturally and economically very important.
The mere existence of bats is a positive story of the environment. Fossils for bats have been found on every continent except Antarctica and date as far back as 55 million years ago. They are the only mammal that evolved true flight capabilities. Ponder that for a moment. Bats are the only mammal that can genuinely create lift using their own self-generated energy. Bats are mammals with wings! Incredible! As if that weren’t enough, bats have the greatest degree of specialization among their 1,116 species than any of the other mammalian orders. Most eat insects. Some eat small vertebrates such as mice, frogs and even other bats. A few eat fish. Many eat pollen and nectar. Some eat fruit. All these different diets require different physical skills. But they are not blind and they do not bite without being provoked. Unless injured and unable to get away, it is unlikely for a bat to purposefully attack a human. If you find an injured bat, keep your children and pets away from it and call a certified, experienced wildlife rehabilitator. A very small percentage of bats can be carriers of rabies, which is transmitted through saliva.
Bat populations have declined in many areas due to loss of roosting sights and water sources because of commercial development. Insecticides can accumulate in their bodies and lead to death. In some parts of the world, bat populations have declined because they are consumed by humans; however, in North America, the largest and rapidly increasing threat to bats is white-nose syndrome. Named for the white fungus (Geomyces destructans), that appears on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats, WNS is associated with extensive deaths in eastern North America, affecting entire colonies in some cases. WNS has spread rapidly across the eastern United States and Canada, and has been detected as far west as Oklahoma. WNS has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America. The good news is that many partners have come together and created a national plan and response strategy. There are 45 state and local organizations, 17 non-governmental organizations, 17 federal organizations and 11 universities working together to save dozens of species of bats and provide information to citizens on how they can help: http://whitenosesyndrome.org/what-can-you-do-help.
The bat story is just one of many examples of how biologists are collaborating with governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.