I looked up at the brilliant night sky of the desert arching over our heads, unpolluted by humanity’s fondness of bright light. I was among several DWR employees – Tony Wright, Lisa Horzepa, Kade Lazenby, Chris Michaud, Brent Stettler – standing in the darkness at Nash Wash in southeastern Utah.
We were not alone in the desert: 25 hardy members of the public stood under the Milky Way with us. Despite the fact that we were closer to Grand Junction, Colorado, than to Salt Lake City, some of the attendees had driven from the Wasatch for the occasion. Utah loves its wildlife, and had this event featured such charismatic species as mule deer, trout or eagles, I wouldn’t have been as surprised by the attendance. But the focus of this nighttime gathering was bats.
Bats. To biologists, they are an incredibly diverse and fascinating group of mammals, ranging from the tiny Asian ‘bumblebee bat’ measuring only an inch in length, to three-pound tropical fruit bats sporting five-foot wingspans.
Of all the mammals, bats are the only group to fly, taking them into realms otherwise reserved for birds and dreamers. In contrast, many people fear bats. They unfairly characterize bats as ‘flying rats’: disease carriers, which Hollywood assures us will become tangled in our hair at any opportunity. Remember the ‘giant vampire bats’ in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? They were actually fruit-eating bats; you have nothing to fear from them unless you’re a mango.
Many years ago, I worked for Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas. I learned first-hand as a naïve college student how many people are frightened and misinformed when it comes to bats. It was my job to explain that bats aren’t dangerous, that they consume tons of insects annually (Texas could still use more mosquito-eating species) and that spraying harsh pesticides into bat colonies was unnecessary and illegal.
“Oh, and by the way,” I always tried to mention, “they pollinate sugarcane. Sugar is used by Bacardi. Bats make rum, dude.”
My experiences with the bat-phobic didn’t prepare me for this DWR bat-viewing event. The number of spaces available to the public was completely filled: there wasn’t, figuratively speaking, an empty seat in the place.
There were kids, young couples, older folks and one dog. Tony, the southeastern region’s Sensitive Species Biologist, greeted several people whom he recognized from previous bat events. There were a few Subarus with pro-Chiroperta (the scientific classification of bats) bumper stickers and even one young woman with a bat tattoo. Everyone was eager to not only see these mysterious creatures up close, but to touch and even smell the furry little flyers. Seeing everyone in the dark was difficult, but characterizing the mood of this group was easy: Bring on the bats!
Before walking down to the small pond, Tony gave the group an introduction to bat biology. He explained that only a small percentage of bats carry diseases dangerous to people. Rabies is in fact less common in bats than in raccoons and dogs. The perception of bats being disease-ridden comes from the fact that, as humans, we don’t interact much with healthy bats; they’re too busy fluttering silently through the dark skies above our heads. It’s the sick bats – those lying on the ground or weak flyers, easily caught by cats and kids – which we often meet, and some of these ill bats can transfer diseases to humans who handle them incorrectly.
People don’t seem to be drawn to ailing raccoons or deer, but they can be counted on to pick up and examine a sickly bat. Proper training, vaccinations and careful handling of sick bats minimize these health risks.
Tony also described the incredible complexity of bats’ echolocation abilities. Imagine, he said, sending and receiving intricate acoustic signals at the same time, while moving rapidly (sometimes 23 feet per second) through the air, tracking a tiny insect, which is also moving. While they’re processing those signals, bats must make rapid flight adjustments accurately enough to snap a panicked mosquito or moth out of the air.
That doesn’t sound much like an animal likely to clumsily smack into someone’s head and get tangled in their hair.
Finally, even given recent rainy weather, Tony had seen very little standing water in the area. This might, he offered, help increase bat activity around our little water source. We adjourned to the pond, where several mist nets were already set up. It wasn’t long before the bats began to arrive.
The small Western pipistrelle was the first to careen into the nets. They were disentangled and brought to the table for identification and processing, where I suspect each bat must have imagined that they’d somehow become a pop culture celebrity.
Cameras large and small took countless pictures from every conceivable angle, accompanied by “oohs” and “aahs.” Photographers jostled for position and many slowly worked up the courage to reach out and stroke the soft fur of the little bats.
The smaller bats kept coming and were joined by larger species: an aptly named big brown bat, quite a few Pallid bats, the long-legged myotis and California myotis. A Brazilian free-tailed bat, one of the most abundant mammals on the continent, also made an appearance.
After so many well-behaved, six-gram bats, the Pallid bats made for an impressive change of pace. The first one, an adult female, emerged from her sample bag reaching forward with her thin wings as if to grab Lisa’s headlamp. She gaped threateningly, displaying her sharp teeth to the entire group. She was backlit, with her translucent wings and ears creating a ghostly halo around her. The effect lent her a respectably intimidating look for something that weighed a scant 16 grams. The group, as bat loving as they were, collectively kept their distance while taking their photographs.
We caught many other Pallids that night, some of which were more personable. None, though, were overly pleased with being handled, and they regularly latched on to the fingertips of Tony’s and Lisa’s gloves. Their teeth, Tony explained, serve them well when they catch and consume their preferred prey: hard-bodied scorpions and beetles.
A storm rolled over the mountains around midnight, forcing us to close the nets to prevent wind damage. The trapping thus ended early, but it was entirely worth the time: six species of bats, all in all. Not bad for one night sitting next to a tiny, muddy pond in the middle of nowhere.
The people who chatted under the desert sky that night value bats. Most people, however, don’t know very much about them. Many don’t even see bats often — perhaps only when they roost in a building, becoming an unwelcome inconvenience.
We are determined to prevent that unfamiliarity from breeding indifference. It’s up to those of us who appreciate bats to educate people about their importance as insect predators and pollinators. With continued effort, funding and popular nocturnal gatherings, the DWR can continue to study, understand and cultivate a love for the bats acrobatically working Utah’s night skies.
Did I mention that bats make rum?