A Pipistrelle bat holds on to the ceiling of a Missouri cave. (Photo by Candice Davis)
Our mild summer weather this week has lured many of us to do everything we can outdoors -- even in the evening hours. Outdoor time in the evening introduces us to a whole new set of wildlife from what we might see in the daylight hours. Bats, in particular, tend to get people very excited because of the mystery that surrounds them. However, before giving in to superstition, consider the positive impact these flying mammals contribute to our way of life.
Bats are a valuable and very fragile contributor to the balance of nature. This time of year young bats that were born in early summer are getting stronger. Helping to protect these fragile and valuable animals, particularly the endangered Indiana bat, is something that can make a positive difference in maintaining our natural world for the benefit of future generations. Bats serve as our primary source of control of insect populations that would otherwise consume our crops and dramatically raise prices at the vegetable stand.
The myth that bats are dangerous is false. The nocturnal habits of bats, their affinity for eerie places like caves, and silent, darting flight, have made them the subjects of folklore and superstition. Michelle Randecker, a Naturalist at the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center said it's important to consider the value of bats and learn more about them before giving in to fear.
"As a naturalist, it's important to make a distinction between our local (Missouri) bats and bats that live other places, like Mexico and Central America," she said. "For example, Missouri is home to two families of bats, both of which are only insect eaters."
Though misconceptions about bats are rampant, all mammals, including bats, are susceptible to diseases such as rabies. However, when you consider the odds, a person living in the U.S. is more likely to catch polio, leprosy or the plague than to contract rabies from a bat, according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control. Of the 30,000+ people across the globe that die from rabies each year -- 99% of these deaths come from contact with rabid dogs.
"The bats that can distribute rabies are vampire bats that live in Central and South America," Randecker said. "They're not found in Missouri, or even close to here."
Bats are definitely more fascinating when superstitions are set aside. They're the only mammals capable of true flight, and they're active at a time when most people prefer to be indoors. For example, the Indiana bat is known as the "social bat". It summers along streams and rivers in north Missouri and hibernates through the winter in caves and abandoned mines in the Ozarks. These bats are threatened by habitat loss and human disturbance at their hibernating sites and are listed as ENDANGERED by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
To make a difference for these fragile mammals, avoid caves known to have hibernating bats, and respect signs and gates constructed to notify people of resident bats. If you have a cave on your property, maintain some forested land around the cave entrance. When possible, leave dead trees standing and only remove trees when Indiana bats are not likely to be present (typically from Sep. 1st to April 1st). Indiana bats tend to favor species of oak and hickory for roosting but may also use cottonwood and elm trees. Also, reduce the use of pesticides near summer foraging areas as these bats consume large quantities of insects during the summer and are at risk to exposure to pesticides.
By learning more about bats, we learn about one important piece of our natural world and we can consider our part in protecting it. To learn more about the value of bats, check out batworld.org. To learn more about bats in Missouri, go online to mdc.mo.gov.