A Cool Story of Bats Educating People

By Merlin Tuttle
7/9/21

Inner Space Cavern, located in Georgetown, Texas, has become a bat education center thanks to cooperative tricolored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) and tour guides who love them. More than 300,000 visitors a year will have a close-up encounter with bats during their guided tour.

 

Tricolored bats can be seen year-round, often roosting within a few feet of passing visitors. Assistant Manager, Patty Perlaky, commented, “I think one of the most exciting things for people, especially the children, is to see a live bat in real life, not on TV.”

 

The cave itself has a long and fascinating history. Approximately 13,000 to 32,000 years ago it had up to five entrances, some quite large. Ancient bones and carbon dating reveal the cave was visited by saber-toothed cats, jaguars, ground sloths, spectacled bears, dire wolves, camels, and even an occasional mammoth.

Tricolored bats range from Mexico to Canada in eastern North America and are tiny, weighing just more than a U.S. quarter.
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Grey-headed Flying Foxes Find Friends in Bendigo Park, Australia

By Merlin Tuttle
6/24/21

For more than a century, Australia’s flying foxes have been misunderstood, hated, and persecuted. Targeted for extermination, countless thousands have been killed. Vast populations have been reduced to endangered status and are now additionally threatened by climate change and exaggerated disease warnings.

 

Nevertheless, as their primate-like sophistication and essential roles as forest pollinators and seed dispersers have become better recognized, growing numbers of Australians are coming to the rescue in the nick of time.

We congratulate the city of Greater Bendigo’s Rosalind Park Gardens Coordinator, Orrin Hogan, in Victoria for his personal efforts. Having seen more than 200 grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) perish due to a 2020 heatwave, he convinced the city council to support a novel idea—a rainforest canopy sprinkler system in the bats’ roosting area to provide cooling during extreme weather.

 

The park provides critical roosting habitat for up to 30,000 grey-headed flying foxes. Australia’s flying foxes have suffered an extreme loss of mature forests along rivers, their traditionally preferred roosting areas, known as “camps.” Today’s remnant populations have few options but to move into cities in search of mature trees in which to take shelter. Desperate city bats face higher temperatures as well as harassment from citizens who often find resulting noise and droppings objectionable.

A grey-headed flying fox in Australia.

Boosted by funds from Australia’s World Wildlife Fund and from the Victoria government, temporary canopy sprinklers were installed in time for the 2021 season. Aerial sprinklers distribute rain-like droplets on extremely hot days. They are turned on for only a few minutes hourly when the temperature reaches 40° C (104° F).

Mother grey-headed flying foxes roosting with young pups hidden beneath their wings.
A grey-headed flying fox pollinating a needlebark stringybark eucalyptus (Eucalyptus planchoniana).
Once acclimated, the bats appeared to enjoy the misting. They would approach sprinklers and spread their wings. Most importantly, no more deaths were detected during peak heat in 2021. Additionally, special efforts are being made to maintain tree health in the bats’ roosting area. This is important, as too many flying foxes occupying a single roost for too long can damage foliage. Hogan hopes his success may encourage additional communities to help Australia’s now desperate flying foxes.

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Hope for Pennsylvania’s Bats – Cal Butchkoski’s Legacy

By Merlin Tuttle
6/18/21

Calvin Butchkoski wasn’t privileged to attend graduate school. In fact, he never even took a course in bat biology while earning an associate degree in wildlife technology at Penn State. Yet, he became his state’s all-time leader in bat conservation. His amazing career is a testament to the power of following one’s passion while caring for both bats and humans.

 

Unable to find employment as a biologist, he served in the Marine Corps for three years after college. Finally, in 1982, he was hired as a biology technician by the Pennsylvania Game Commission where he assisted in studies of wild turkeys, bears, and even packrats for two years. He didn’t discover his true passion until assigned to work with bat expert, Dr. John Hall.

Despite a late start and lack of formal training, mostly self-taught, Cal quickly became one of America’s foremost bat conservationists. In fact, he led Pennsylvania to become a national model. His achievements include key bat house discoveries, the establishment of America’s first citizen science bat counts, protection for the state’s most important hibernation sites in caves and mines, special training for hundreds of state and federal employees, and highly successful public education campaigns.

 

Cal led early research on the most appropriate bat house designs for Pennsylvania and helped homeowners solve nuisance problems caused by too many bats attempting to live in walls and attics. His bat house alternatives saved thousands of bats from extermination. And homeowners often became citizen scientists volunteering their help with annual emergence counts.

Cal enjoying the company of an inquisitive packrat. He is a natural-born animal lover and outdoorsman who cares about all wildlife.
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Bat House Warnings – A Reality Check

5/6/21
Merlin Tuttle

Observations of heat-stressed, sometimes dead bats associated with bat houses, have led to unfortunate speculation that bat houses can become ecological traps that lure bats to their death. It is true that numerous bat houses are badly built and sold with unreasonable claims and little, if any, instruction on bat needs. Vendors of such houses defraud customers and threaten the credibility of bat conservation. Both vendors and customers can benefit from education and certification. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that poorly constructed bat houses threaten bat survival. Bats are smart enough to avoid bad bat houses except when desperate from lack of alternatives.
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Saving Bats One Cave and Mine at a Time

4/23/21
Merlin Tuttle

Caves are a critical resource for America’s bats. But thousands are no longer available for bats. Early American settlers relied on saltpeter from bat caves to produce gun powder. Then caves became lucrative for tourism, and many others were buried beneath cities or flooded by reservoirs. Even caves that were not destroyed often were rendered unsuitable for further bat use. Not surprisingly, the most cave-dependent bats quickly crashed to endangered status.

Today, nothing is more important to their recovery than identifying, restoring, and protecting key caves of past use. At that, Jim Kennedy is an unsung hero. Early in his career he joined me in critical research on the needs of cave-dwelling bats and worked with master bat-gate-building engineer, Roy Powers, to become an expert builder.

Kennedy became an expert at detecting evidence of past use by bats, and he has helped build gates to protect many of America’s most important remaining bat caves. He has also led workshops to train others. In 2013, he founded his own company, Kennedy Above/Under Ground, LLC. His teams have built 56 protective gates at 43 caves and abandoned mines where hundreds of thousands of bats have since recovered from severe losses.

Illustrative of the impact of protection at key locations, endangered gray bats at Bellamy Cave in Tennessee, increased from 65 to more than 150,000 once protected. And when a bad gate was replaced at Long Cave in Kentucky, gray bat numbers grew from zero to over 300,000. At Saltpeter Cave in Kentucky, endangered Indiana bats increased from zero to 7,000 when poor gates were replaced, air flow was restored, and winter visitor tours were terminated. Jim was involved in restoring each of these caves for use by bats. 

Jim Kennedy (right) and endangered Indiana Bat Recovery Team Leader, Rick Clausen, documenting recovery of Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) in Saltpeter Cave, Kentucky. The species began rapid recovery in this cave following installation of an improved gate and airflow led by Jim.
Heather Garland, Tennessee Nature Conservancy Cave Specialist, and Merlin Tuttle conducting a winter census of recovered hibernating gray bats in Bellamy Cave.
Bellamy Cave in Tennessee provides both cold and warm roosts permitting year-around use by endangered gray bats (Myotis grisescens). Dramatic recovery occurred following protection. A 100-foot-long, 10-foot-high, perforated steel fence ensures long-term protection. The bats chose to fly over the fence instead of through the gaps. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy

Protection can be a real challenge. Even good gates, if wrongly located, can force abandonment partly because different species have unique needs. Gray bats, and other species that form large nursery colonies in caves, cannot tolerate full gates across entrances. Newly flying young slow down and become easy prey for predators. Jim has three ways of dealing with this. When a cave entrance is large enough, he leaves fly-over space above, relying on a perforated metal lip to prevent human entry. Alternatively, he sometimes builds a metal chute at the top, using perforated metal. When entrance size or shape precludes such approaches, he surrounds the entrance with a 10-foot-tall, perforated-steel fence. At Key Cave in Alabama, the Tennessee Valley Authority contracted Jim’s team early in 2021 to build a 390-foot fence that required 21 tons of steel. Its entrances were too small to permit young bats safe exit through gates.

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Inspiring Bat Conservation Through Photos

4/9/2021

By Teresa Nichta

The Bat Scan Project provides photo documentation, enabling a growing number of conservation projects and exhibits worldwide to share the values of bats. These photos are also heavily used in children’s books, school reports, and in both scientific and popular publications. For example, the Smithsonian’s book, BATS: An Illustrated Guide to All Species, exclusively relied on nearly 400 of Merlin’s photos.

We’re delighted to share a few highlights from recent use.

A Mexican long-tongued bat (Choeronycteris mexicana) pollinating agave flowers (Agave palmeri).
A California leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus californicus) catching a cricket.
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Severe Weather Takes Heavy Toll in Texas

By Merlin Tuttle
3/2/21

Given overall warming trends, we weren’t surprised to see some 70 to 80° F days in January and February of 2021. But that hardly tells the full story!

Beginning on February 10th, historically low temperatures were recorded across Texas. For eight consecutive days (February 10–18), the temperature hovered between 37° and 9° F with six inches of snow on the ground in Austin, Texas. The first reasonable feeding opportunity for bats likely didn’t occur before the 21st.

The last similar event occurred 32 years ago in 1989. In a 9-day period (December 16–24) the daily temperature ranged from 51 to 4° F but remained below freezing for only two days versus seven in 2021. Fewer people were concerned in those days, but at least hundreds of killed bats were reported.

Brazilian free-tailed bats about to emerge from their day roost in a bridge crevice in Austin, Texas.
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Floral Adaptations to Bats May Guide Our Future

12/13/2020
By Ralph Simon

In October of 2011, Merlin, his wife Paula, and I, accompanied by National Geographic science writer Susan McGrath, began the incredibly difficult task of, for the first time, documenting a wide range of highly specialized flower adaptations to facilitate bat visitation in Costa Rica, Cuba, and Ecuador. Following three months of little sleep, red tape, floods, terrible roads, and seemingly endless searches, we finally were able to photographically document the amazing adaptations of very special plants, echo vines, old man’s beard cactus, and sea bean vines, which attract nectar bats with their acoustics (original project report).

Nectar bats must make hundreds of visits to flowers every night to find enough nectar to survive. As one can imagine, finding small flowers in the dense vegetation of a tropical forest can be challenging. But plants have evolved exceptional adaptations to help bats find their flowers. First, they provide special odors, often like garlic, cabbage, or sulfur, not attractive for humans but bats love them! Many bat-pollinated flowers have thick, waxy surfaces that reflect exceptionally strong echoes, helping bats use echolocation to find them from greater distances.

A few flowers even provide conspicuous echo-reflectors to help guide bats to their nectaries. These reflectors stand out through a wide radiation pattern, which means that bats receive loud echoes audible from many directions. They basically work like an acoustic cat’s eye (retroreflector). And they also reflect a unique spectral signature, like a fingerprint, which bats can easily identify. Behavioral experiments show that if these reflectors are missing or blocked with a piece of cotton, the flowers are rarely visited by bats, demonstrating their importance.

The most specialized flowers are found in relatively stable, tropical areas. In locations where climate and associated pollinators are less predictable, many plants hedge their bets by opening at night but remaining open and receptive for some or all the following day. This serves as insurance in case bats don’t visit. The rare echo vine (Marcgravia evenia) is such a species. It grows in low abundance in some of Cuba’s densest tropical forests. Bright red, and frequently visited by hummingbirds, it was long believed to be mainly hummingbird-pollinated.

A Leache’s long-tongued bat (Monophyllus redmoni) pollinating Marcgravia evenia in Cuba, and a Cuban emerald hummingbird is getting a free meal without pollinating. The upturned leaf reflects bat echolocation, guiding their approach like airport landing lights guide pilots at night. In fact, neither insects nor hummingbirds are large enough to contact the plant’s reproductive organs, so even when they find Marcgravia flowers, they rarely achieve pollination. 

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Improving Bat Houses in America:

Nearly 40 Years of Progress and Still Learning

9/14/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

Bat houses are outstanding tools for education. When I introduced them to Americans in 1982, my primary objective was to help people overcome fear and accept bats as valuable neighbors. That goal has been vastly exceeded. Today, hundreds of thousands of American bats live in a wide variety of bat houses.

Individuals who have carefully tested local bat preferences, and adapted accordingly, are reporting close to 90 percent occupancy. Nevertheless, there is still much to be learned. And that is why we’re initiating new collaborations.

Late last month, local member, Debbie Zent, founder of Austin Batworks, reported an impressive event. Her three-chamber nursery house had been caulked, sealed, and painted inside and out, and was mounted high on a streamside ranch building—a nearly perfect combination. But to find it overflowing with occupants just days later was surprising.

This Texas Hill Country bat house became overcrowded within days by Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis).
The house was ideally located approximately 18 feet up on a building beside a permanent creek where it receives only morning to mid-day sun.

Was this extraordinary success due to house or location quality, or were these bats simply desperate?

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Timely New Children’s Book

9/3/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

Life Upside Down

Australia’s Grey-headed flying-foxes

Leading wildlife photographer and conservationist, Doug Gimesy, has teamed up with award-winning media graphic artist, Heather Kiley, to produce an outstanding introduction to the upside-down world of grey-headed flying foxes. Through stunning photography, simple text, and eye-catching design, this book provides a timely introduction to some of the world’s most frequently misunderstood and intensely persecuted animals.

Victims of misunderstanding and mass eradication attempts, Australia’s flying foxes now survive only as tiny fractions of former numbers. Forest clearing has left them homeless and starving. Countless thousands have been killed in mass shooting campaigns, electrocution grids, and flame thrower attacks on their roosts, known as camps. Remnant survivors are now forced to live in cities where they are needlessly demonized as carriers of dreaded diseases, despite a long history of living safely with people or subjected to attempts of forced eviction with nowhere else to go. Welcomed honeybees, dogs, and especially humans are far more dangerous! Moreover, large numbers of flying foxes are essential to reforestation and the survival of much-loved animals such as koalas.

Readers of Life Upside Down will be introduced to the real world of flying foxes as safe and invaluable neighbors and learn how they can be helped. This full-color, large-format, 48-page book is available in hardcover for $19.95 at Australian Geographic or at Book Depository.  

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