Life as a bat biologist can be scary – but not for the reasons you may think…

Happy Halloween everyone! In this special Halloween-themed post we welcome Dr. Krista Patriquin to the blog to tell us all about bats and dispel some common bat myths!

I have been part of a love/hate relationship with bats for more than 15 years.  These much maligned creatures are incredibly fascinating and we still have so much to learn about them (that’s the love part), owing primarily to the fact that they are incredibly difficult to study (and that’s the hate part). I wasn’t always fascinated by bats; in fact, I knew very little of them aside from the traditional lore that surrounded them.  So, let’s dispel some of the more common myths right off the (ahem) bat:

Bats are NOT blind. Members of one group of bats, the flying foxes, actually rely exclusively on sight and can even see in colour like you and I. Members of the other major group, the so called “microbats”, have perfectly good sight; it just so happens sight isn’t all that useful while flying around in the dark, so instead they rely extensively on echolocation (sonar).

Bats do NOT get caught in your hair. Trust me, if they did, I would have the biggest hair possible – they are insanely difficult to catch. Unfortunately, thanks to their sonar, they can detect something as fine as a human hair!

Bats are NOT mice with wings, despite what their common name in other languages might imply (e.g. chauve-souris – bald mouse; fledermaus – flying mouse). In fact, mounting evidence shows they are more closely related to you and me than they are to mice!

I’ve never been afraid of bats, and I could go on, and on, and on, about how amazing bats truly are, but this recent article does a great job of that: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2014/10/28/ten-reasons-why-bats-are-a-lot-cooler-than-you-think.

Instead, given it is Hallowe’en, I will share

When I first started working with bats, I had very little experience being in the woods, never mind working outdoors at night, often alone. With the sense of sight rendered ineffectual, your sense of hearing becomes heightened. This, coupled with an overactive imagination, has led to more than one night of terror. One night I was convinced a monster of gigantic proportions was coming to get me. I was shocked to learn that my monster was in fact a nighthawk performing its territorial display. For those of you who have never heard this display, listen to some of the “peents & boom sounds” at this link http://birds.audubon.org/birds/common-nighthawk. Now imagine hearing that for the first time while standing all alone at night in the middle of the woods and tell me you wouldn’t be scared!

There was also the night I had myself literally scared stiff. YES – LITERALLY – I froze in my spot for several seconds – admittedly not the best response to a potential threat. On this particular night I heard something that sounded rather large rustling in the woods a mere 20 metres or so from me.  I was convinced it was one of the many black bears that had been sighted in my study area.  When I called out to my assistant, much to my surprise, his voice came from the very spot where I’d heard the rustling! Turns out he was attempting to climb a tree to find a better way to put up a mist-net – a net used to catch bats based on the ridiculous premise that they cannot detect the fine mesh with their sonar.

Then there are all the questionable encounters with people in the middle of the night. There was the time I was working in the back of a small coulee (effectively an old river valley in the badlands; https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadagood/5594454763/ ), with only one access point, when two local men saw my headlamp on their drive “sobering up” (in their words!). I hate to admit it, but I was incredibly grateful my assistant at that time was also a rather large male. Then there was the time two fellows out cruising on their ATVs discovered my camp site and decided to pay my assistant and myself a visit. We were in the middle of doing dishes, so my assistant made it very clear she had a rather large knife in her possession as she dried it. As they finally left, they indicated they were going to tell their friends about the “bat girls in the woods”. Needless to say, we packed up and moved camp immediately! While I’m sure in both cases these guys were harmless, these encounters certainly invoke a level of fear, along with a sense of vulnerability, as well as frustration at being fearful because I am a woman.

The SCARIEST thing about working with bats, though, is we are at serious risk of losing them. Wind turbines, on top of habitat loss, for instance, pose a serious threat to bat populations. Thankfully considerable effort is being made to minimize the losses and to understand why bats are dying at turbines. However, the most alarming threat to bats in North America is White Nose Syndrome. By now you have no doubt heard about the invasion of epic proportions resulting in the rapid, and massive, loss of hibernating bats across North America. A fungus, thought to have originated in Europe, has invaded the caves of North America, where it attacks the wings and noses of hibernating bats. Sadly, most bats infected with this fungus die.  We are still learning the precise cause of death, and so how to prevent it.

Equally alarming is how quickly this fungus spreads. Since it was first discovered in 2006 in a cave near Albany, NY, it has wiped out an estimated 5.6 MILLION bats in North America, and spread across eastern US and Canada, making its way south and west.

map

The good news, though, is there is a huge effort to figure out how to stop the spread, with some promise coming to light at the recent North American Symposium on Bat Research (that’s right, an entire conference dedicated to bat research – with 400 people attending!).

Don’t fear bats – help them! If you would like to know more about bats, and how you can help, please visit http://batcon.org/

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