Bats of Kentucky: Our Nocturnal, Insect-Eating, and Misunderstood Friends
Bats are often associated with all things spooky: vampires, caves, dark nights in the forest. However, these furry-faced creatures play a highly important role in ecological systems around the world. Land Between the Lakes naturalist, John Pollpeter, visits Sounds Good to discuss these diverse, helpful, and not-so-scary mammals.
"I think a lot of times when it comes to bats, it's mainly the pop culture thing [that makes them scary]," Pollpeter explains. "Some bats have funny faces, they come out at night. There are bats that, of course, drink blood - that spurs on the vampire myth. But in my twenty years of working in conservation, not more than one species - the bat - has made the biggest recovery in the way that people look at it. We get a lot of folks that come to the nature station and say 'where are the plans for the bat house?' They'll get excited when they see the bats hanging out in our bat houses. We have a number of bat houses there that are occupied, and it really gives people an opportunity to see that these creatures aren't so bad and their value to us as an insect eater is very important."
"Bats do some important ecological roles for us. One, in our area, they're an incredible insect eater, particularly nighttime insects...mainly the moths, beetles that might cause crop damage, of course, we don't like to be bitten by mosquitoes, and bats are known to eat mosquitoes," Pollpeter says. "There was one statistic by Bat Conservation International that says one little brown bat can eat one thousand mosquitoes in an evening. Another thing we don't really realize about bats, and this is mainly in desert regions of our country and tropical rainforest regions, is they're an important pollinator to a lot of the things we like to have in our daily lives. For instance, if you like a margarita, you can thank a bat. Bananas and cashews and avocados are all pollinated by bats."
"In the mammal world, bats are the second most diverse group of animals. So there's over a thousand species of bats around the world. Some of them are as tiny as the little bumblebee bat in Thailand, which is a little bigger than a dime. Some of the crowned flying foxes that you're going to find in Papua, New Guinea have a six, seven-foot wing span. There's an incredible diversity of them around the world," Pollpeter continues. "Here in Kentucky, we have close to thirteen, maybe a little bit more, species. All of them insect eaters, brown little guys. We have a couple diverse ones that I particularly like. I love the red bat, which is like a flying little teddy bear. It's bright, kind of orange-ish brown. That's the one you sometimes see in the winter months. So if you're ever driving down a backroad in Land Between the Lakes and it's one of those days where it gets up to the 50s, 60s, and you see some bats flying around, most likely those are going to be red bats because they don't hibernate in the caves. They hibernate in the trees, and that's what we got plenty of in Land Between the Lakes."
For those still not convinced of bats' good reputations, or those fearful of vampire bats in particular, rest assured that the blood-sucking variations of these flying mammals won't be an issue in the Commonwealth anytime soon. "The only vampire bats - there's three species - the only place you're ever going to find them, except the zoo, is in Central America and South America. You're not going to find them anywhere that I know of in the United States. I think there might have been a couple cases where they may have been found on the Texas border, but for the most part, it is just in Central and South America," Pollpeter explains.
Some of the bat species present in Land Between the Lakes are beginning their journey to cave systems in central and eastern Kentucky to hibernate for the winter, but some non-cave dwelling species will remain throughout the colder months. Pollpeter explains, "all the bats that you're going to see are going to be deep in the forest. You may see them in the waterways, like creeks and around the ponds where they're going to be picking up insects. The bats that stay around us are probably going to be the big brown and the red bats, which don't necessarily need to hibernate in caves. During the summer months, you can see them in our bat boxes at the Nature Station. Or if you're fishing on a fishing bank or hiking late in the evening, you're going to see them."
When asked if there were any organisms capable of replicating bats' ecological roles if they were to be eradicated from the area, Pollpeter says, "all I got is some circumstantial evidence on that one. In nature, there are some redundancies, but not to that great extent. With the big huge ecological role that bats play, it'd be almost impossible to replace it. We recently experienced in 2012 Trigg Country, which is a good portion of Land Between the Lakes, got designated as a white-nose syndrome country and we lost a lot of bats...almost 95% of our bats, little brown bats, in our bat houses. So we got to kind of see that scenario play out a little bit. Circumstantial evidence, those next several years, we had terrible bug problems, mosquito problems. Now whether that was tied to the bat thing, we can't really see, but when you kind of put two and two together...it equals four."
"Bats need our help at this point. There's a lot of things we can do for their conservation, for our own conservation by trying to protect them. One of the things, of course, is not disturbing bat roosting sites, whether it's a tree that you see in a wood lot of a cave system during winter months. That's very detrimental to bats. If you're concerned and you kind of want to help them, especially during the breeding season, putting up a bat house in the proper location in your backyard or on your farm can be extremely good help, especially with some of the species that are being impacted by white-nose syndrome because it provides an alternative in a safe location for them to raise their young," Pollpeter concludes.