Bat Basics: Research, Citizen Science, and Shared Environments

Bat emerging from a roost in Metchosin, BC. Credit: Estraven Lupino-Smith

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Recently, upon hearing that I worked on bat research and citizen science, I was asked by someone “but what to bats DO… like, what are they useful for?” This person wasn’t asking it to be mean or cruel or careless, at least, I don’t think they were. Regardless, I felt my back get up, I was and am tired of having to tell people that bats are useful for eating bugs and controlling the insect population, that their flight and echolocation is studied heavily because it is so advanced, and they are an important part of our ecosystem. I want to just say the last part, “they are an important part of ecosystems.” That should be enough. Unfortunately, the way that capitalism frames understandings about the so-called natural world means that all creatures great and small are judged by their value in a market economy, and where most animals are assigned value based on what their benefits to humans are. I gave in and rhymed off the stats on how many insects a bat can consume in an evening (for some species it’s between six and eight thousand), and that they provide estimated billions in pesticide control for agriculture and forestry. She seemed satisfied with that answer.

Unfortunately, the way that capitalism frames understandings about the so-called natural world means that all creatures great and small are judged by their value in a market economy, and where most animals are assigned value based on what their benefits to humans are.

I was particularly worn out having to defend bats after working as the Bat Stewardship Coordinator at a small conservation non-profit, Habitat Acquisition Trust based in Victoria. This past summer there was a tragic death of a young man from Vancouver Island after he contracted rabies from a bat. This was one of two deaths from rabies in the province in one hundred years, but the impact was still significant. Suddenly the spotlight was on bats, bringing negative attention and public panic about catching the deadly disease from these night flyers. There was the misreporting of rabies infection rates, misinformation about how rabies is transferred to humans and other mammals, and many news outlets used photos of bats that don’t live in British Columbia, let alone in the Northern Hemisphere, in their stories. A prominent national paper featured a vampire bat with blood on it’s lips in a story about rabies. The closest place to BC where vampire bats reside is in parts of Southern Mexico, 4,000 kilometers away.

Townsends Big Eared Bat. Credit: Wild ARC BC

The bat is a fascinating animal. It is the only mammal capable of true and sustained flight. Bats evolved 55 million years ago and are in their own order Chiroptera, which means “hand wing.” This refers to the physiology of the bat wing: their long finger-like digits spread through the skin of their wings. There are over 1,200 different species of bats worldwide and Chiroptera is the second largest order of mammals. They are not rodents and are actually more closely related to monkeys than they are to rats.

Humans have researched bats in order to study their characteristics and abilities deemed useful to military, health, and surveillance technologies. Bats have highly developed echolocation, and have been studied to develop sonar and other sonic tracking technologies based on their abilities to detect their surroundings and prey solely with sound waves. Bats have also been the subject of military study because of their complex and highly advanced flight. Although in North America we generally see bats’ flight as erratic, they are actually moving with incredible agility. Their fight is distinctively different than that of birds, and much more maneuverable. This is because biomechanics of their flight is very different from a bird: because their fingers extend through their wings, the control they have and micro movements they can make to alter their direction is much more adept than most birds. Bats continue to be studied for their flight, to determine if there is a way for a human made machine to mimic this intricate flight ability.

Bats are also being studied for their capacity to live much longer than other mammals of their size. They can live three and a half times longer than other mammals of the same size, with several species being recorded living over thirty years. The oldest known bat was forty-one years old, a Brandt’s Bat. Their longevity is connected to their capacity to regenerate any damaged cells at a rapid rate. The bat wing membrane is one of the fastest healing mammalian tissues. One research station is attempting to figure out what it is exactly that grants the bat their amazing power of cellular regeneration.

Little Brown Myotis, Myotis lucifugus.

This wing regeneration presents an interesting paradox in relationship to a major threat to many species of North American bats: White Nose Syndrome. First noticed as a white fungal growth on the snouts of these species it was given the name White Nose Syndrome. After years of research, it has been determined that the wings are the most heavily affected. Not even the fast healing properties of the bat wing can fend off Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus responsible for White Nose Syndrome.

P. destructans is a cold-loving fungus that prefers temperatures between four and twenty degrees Celsius and thrives in the conditions offered by bat hibernacula. P. destructans infects hibernating bats and aggravates their connective tissue, focusing on the wings. As the bats work to fight off the disease, their hibernation is disturbed as they need draw on their winter energy stores to survive. Out of torpor, bats are using way more energy than they normally would, and some are seen flying around in the winter, likely looking for food to replenish these stores. As there are no insects present during the winter, these bats often starve to death. Others are found dead in their hibernacula.

P. destructans is thought to have been introduced to North America via caving enthusiasts who failed to properly wash their gear after returning from Europe. It is believed to have been introduced in 2006, has lead to the death of over 7 million bats. Some populations of hibernating bat species have seen as high as 99% mortality. One of the hardest hit species is the Little Brown Myotis, Myotis lucifugus, which went from being one of the most common bats in North America to listed as an Endangered Species in less than 5 years between 2006 and 2011. White Nose Syndrome has been absolutely devastating for bat populations in the east, and the fungus and the associated disease continue to move across the continent. Although bats have been extensively studied for their characteristics that are beneficial to humans, very little have been researched about their ecologies. Their negative press and cultural associations thanks to Count Dracula and other affiliated depictions (even the devil has bat-like wings…) there hasn’t been significant resources devoted to understanding the biology and behaviours of bats. This means that when White Nose was identified as a threat, there was a lot of ground to cover to determine what to do to mitigate the affects of the disease.

Little Brown Myotis bats with White Nose Syndrome. Credit: A. Hicks

During some discussions through my work with Habitat Acquisition Trust, I’ve had people say they have an “infestation” of bats. I won’t argue with anyone about mice in the kitchen as a less than ideal situation. Rodents multiply at a fast rate, especially when they have a consistent food source. However, unlike rodents, bats don’t chew or dig or otherwise damage infrastructure, instead they look for small openings to get in. In my experience, these small mammals can live for years in a human occupied structure before anyone notices. Bats that appear in the warmer months in homes are usually females that are pregnant, these summer roosts are used as nurseries, where the pups are born and cared for until they can fly on their own. Yes, young bats are called pups.

“We are always living in an ecosystem.”

The toughest concept to get people to understand when it comes to bat conservation in homes and other human structures, is that we are always living in an ecosystem. Our homes are part of an ecosystem no matter if they are in the heart of a city or in a rural area. The moss that grows between the patio stones, the birds at the feeder, the deer eating our gardens, the mice that take up residence wherever they can. These are the easier indicators that life is happening, that organisms are relating to each other and coexisting. Through my work I have thought about what it would look like to construct all new houses with bat attics, with access made easy to clean out guano and monitor the populations. What might it look like for all structures to be built as if they were part of an ecosystem, instead of only being built to constrain or control one?

When it comes to conservation, I believe that this starting point, to understand yourself as part of an ecosystem or several ecosystems is paramount to understanding how to best participate at a daily level in environmental issues. Some of this is also stirred by citizen science projects, ways to get anyone interested in a particular issue or species involved in stewardship and critical analysis of their environment.

Bat Monitoring in Elk/Beaver Lake Park, BC. Credit: Estraven Lupino-Smith

This summer I also organized the annual Bat Count as a part of the Community Bat Program of BC, a citizen science project performed by volunteers. On southern Vancouver Island, over twenty roosts in houses and human-made bat boxes are monitored by some seventy volunteers. For an hour after sunset, bats are counted as they emerge from the roost. Using the twilit sky to silhouette their fast moving bodies, it’s possible to get a reasonably accurate count. The count is performed at least two nights in the summer months before the pups can fly, and then another two nights for a period after, in order to have a sense of the population of adults versus juveniles. This data helps with figuring out population trends at a particular roost since bats will return to the same spot year after year. It is also important to record the numbers since bats have a 50% mortality rate among their juveniles, and only have one pup per year. Their numbers stay relatively stable and any major disease or other mortality incident can be devastating for a species since their reproductive rate is slow. It is estimated, for instance, that to recover the population of bats to pre-White Nose numbers on the East Coast could take as long as 10,000 years. Bats seem to be consistently gaining popularity among conservation organizations and environmentally-minded people, and that shows promise for investing in the preservation on these nocturnal creatures and the environments we share with them.

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Estraven Lupino-Smith

Estraven Lupino-Smith is an artist, researcher, and educator living on unceded Lkwungen and and W̱SÁNEĆ territories. Their work is informed by their curiosity and critical engagements with various environments: natural, cultural, and constructed. They are interested in the interactions of human and non-human animals and interrupting dominant narratives about nature and ecologies.

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