In autumn and winter, we seem to be racing through the holidays. Halloween, Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Year’s. What are some of the animals that we connect to these events? Whether for their symbolism or their activity at certain times of the year, some animals just seem to conjure up images of these holidays. That may seem odd when many species of wildlife are entering hibernation in the fall, not to be seen again for months. On the other hand, some animals are more visible during the cold months due to their migration patterns. For instance, winter in the desert is a great time to view visiting raptors and waterfowl.
In early November, with Halloween over, we can take a more objective view of symbolic creatures such as bats. While celebrated for their scary attributes during the holiday, bats are actually very beneficial animals. They are not threatening. However, many of them are threatened, due to a number of risks: white nose syndrome, loss of habitat, pesticide use, and disturbance of winter roosts.
Bats are mammals, warm-blooded and covered with fur. They are not flying rats and they are not related to birds. Bats are, in reality, more closely related to primates than to any other animals. They are able to fly with their hands acting as “wings.” The “wings” have a type of webbed skin, that attaches the digits and limbs to each other and to the body. Altogether, the bat is able to manipulate the air in jittery flight.
Too many myths surround these interesting animals. Rabies: less than one percent of bats carries rabies. And in order to contract the disease from a bat, a person would have to get bitten by one, which would require picking it up. Common sense tells us that a bat on the ground is an indication that it is sick and should not be touched. Attacks: bats do not randomly attack people and they do not make nests in people’s hair. Vampires: vampire bats live in South America, and rather than piercing and sucking, they make a tiny tear in the skin of an animal such as a chicken or cow, and lick up the droplets of blood that come out.
The truth is that we need to protect bats, especially in winter. Winter is a difficult time for these animals, as they are hibernating and conserving energy resources. A small amount of fat is stored between their shoulder blades. Any disturbance will arouse them from their sleep, using up those precious fat resources, and they could starve. Although bats do normally awaken from their torpor (lowered metabolism) every few weeks, any unnecessary awakening is stressful to them. Female bats are carrying young, and their maternity roosts are especially vulnerable. Some species of bats only produce one young a year, and pup mortality is very high without artificial factors playing a role. The limited energy resources that the females are storing during the winter feed the developing young.
In the eastern U.S., winter disturbance is especially devastating to the bats because many have contracted white-nose syndrome. The fungus forces them to arouse from torpor more often, using up their fat resources, and has the potential to kill entire colonies. In these areas, cave closure is mandatory, and some federal land managers in the Rocky Mountains have started to implement this protective measure. With the finding of white-nose syndrome west of the Mississippi, conservationists are concerned that the disease may spread into the western U.S.
In Nevada, bat biologists are ahead of the curve, monitoring bat colonies for the disease and putting other protective measures in place. Anyone who handles bats in scientific studies is required to follow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decontamination methods. Other measures, such as the closing of abandoned mines to human traffic, prevent disturbance to winter maternity roosts.
In a separate protective measure, a new Nevada law governing the removal of mine claim markers goes into effect this month (November 2011). These markers, which are often a long hollow tube with no escape, cause many bat mortalities.
Anyone who comes across bats during the winter should avoid disturbing them. A good rule of thumb is to avoid places that bats roost in the winter. This includes caves, cliff overhangs and mining shafts. There won’t be any batwatching until the temperatures warm up in the spring and the bats emerge once again; therefore, no need to trespass a cave.
The quiet time of winter should give us a chance to learn more about bats and appreciate the good things that they do for us, such as pollinating plants and consuming millions of insects. From 2011 into 2012, the world is celebrating the International Year of the Bat, a time to develop species awareness and promote the conservation of bats. Join in the celebration by going to http://www.yearofthebat.org/ or http://www.batcon.org/.