October 24 through 31 is a special time to celebrate the small but mighty mammals among us: bats! Here are a few facts about these important yet misunderstood creatures and their history in our national parks
1. Almost every national park is home to some kind of bat.
According to the National Park Service, bats live in nearly every national park, from the Alaskan interior to the tropical forests of Samoa to the National Mall — but because they shelter in secluded places and are mostly active at night, visitors rarely see them. (Carlsbad Caverns, with its popular bat flight program, is a notable exception.) An estimated 50 different bat species, from the common Mexican free-tailed bat to the rare Indiana bat, live, mate and raise their pups in the nooks and recesses of U.S. federal lands. Bats are important pollinators and insectivores that play critical roles in ecosystems across the country.
2. Bats make up roughly a quarter of all mammal species on Earth — but a majority of these species are vulnerable.
On the one hand, bats are plentiful. With more than 1,300 different species around the world, they have adapted to a wide variety of urban and rural environments. But according to Bat Conservation International, a whopping 954 of these species are considered vulnerable, meaning that they are likely to become endangered in the future if threats to their survival do not change. Fifty-one species are already endangered and need additional protections to ensure their survival; of those, 26 face imminent danger of extinction. And in the U.S. alone, 13 species are federally endangered or threatened. Three of the biggest known contributors to bat mortality are habitat loss, diseases and pollutants. National park staff play an important role in helping bats survive by maintaining habitat, monitoring animal populations, and studying and treating deadly diseases such as white-nose syndrome.
3. Bats love caves, but roost and hibernate in many other park habitats, too.
Underground caverns such as Mammoth Cave and Wind Cave are some of the best-known bat habitats in the National Park System and provide valuable places to hibernate (“hibernacula” in bat research lingo) — but bats also shelter in abandoned mines, buildings, trees, rock crevices, Spanish moss and other secluded places. Bats have even been known to hang out in the actual castle at Montezuma Castle National Monument, in a former railroad tunnel at the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park, and under the eaves of the visitor center at White Sands National Monument, among many other places.
4. Bats provided a valuable resource to miners in several caves that later became national parks.
Bat poop — known as guano — is a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and mining it was once a big business in the United States. In the early 1900s, miners removed tons of guano from Carlsbad Caverns for use on agricultural crops; the practice stopped in the main bat cave when the park was added to the National Park System in 1923, although it continued in other caves in the park until the late 1950s. Miners also made ambitious plans to remove guano from Bat Cave in Arizona in the 1950s, which became part of Grand Canyon National Park in 1975. Prospectors grossly overestimated the amount of guano in the cave and ultimately lost money on the operation. Visitors can still see relics of the cable car system that once ferried workers and their take over the canyon at the aptly named Guano Point.
5. A fossil collector discovered the oldest known bat at a national park site.
National parks aren’t just a refuge for present-day bats; one site in particular provides an interesting window into the animals’ past. When collector Bonnie Finney discovered a bat fossil at Fossil Butte National Monument in southwestern Wyoming in 2003, it was notable for several reasons. Most of the fossils at this park site are fish, not mammals. And bat fossils are rare finds, given the animals’ delicate skeletons, which decompose easily over time. But this bat specimen, named Onychonycteris finneyi, turned out to be the earliest known bat species ever discovered. Scientists have studied the fossil’s unusual claws and ears, which give new insights into how these animals have evolved over time.
6. National park staff have not always managed sites to improve bat survival like they do now.
Bats depend on places such as caves and mine shafts to survive — sites that are potentially dangerous for people and vulnerable to looting. In the past, park staff have closed off entrances to some of these habitats to prevent injuries and vandalism, unknowingly trapping bats inside. Likewise, some mining and tourism operations have drilled holes in cave environments, altering the climate and forcing bats to flee in search of more comfortable roosts. Now that researchers have spent more time monitoring and understanding bat populations and behaviors, park staff have put better systems in place to restore bat habitats, building special gates around cave and mine entrances that keep people out but have holes big enough to allow bats to move freely through.
7. White-nose syndrome has killed an estimated 5.7 million bats since 2006, and federal and state agencies are researching and monitoring bat populations to try to contain the devastation.
White-nose syndrome is a disease that has spread rapidly among hibernating bat populations in the eastern United States and Canada, leading to massive bat deaths, in some cases killing 90 percent or more of the bats in affected communities. The fungus wakes bats early from hibernation, causing them to burn fat stores necessary for survival; as a result, the weak and disoriented bats often starve to death or die of exposure while searching for food during the winter months. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has led a multi-agency initiative to monitor and control the disease, including extensive research and prevention campaigns in national parks. Although scientists do not expect to be able to eliminate or cure the disease, new research indicates it may be possible to slow the spread of the fungus, allowing bats to survive. Regardless of the progress combating the disease, national park visitors can help prevent its spread by always cleaning their feet and caving equipment and following ranger instructions to avoid contaminating caves.
Want to help bats? Consider:
- Pulling invasive plants from your garden
- Building a bat house to increase habitat where you live
- Assisting in a citizen science project like Arizona BatWatch, Wisconsin’s acoustic bat monitoring program or Indiana’s summer roost counts.
- Reading these tips from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on how to be a friend to bats.
- Adopting a bat with an organization such as Bat Conservation International.
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.