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Saving the bat habitat

Bats tend to creep us out. They swarm our skies at night. Roost in the corners of caves and attics. Some actually drink blood.

But while most of our own bat terrors are grossly exaggerated, bats themselves are facing real horrors. And as bats disappear, our ecosystem may change dramatically.

“You don’t have to love bats to appreciate what they’re doing for us,” said Marne Titchenell, a wildlife program specialist for the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “However, the less fear there is of them, the more we care. The more we care, the more we start doing things to help protect them.”

How important are bats to our ecosystem?

There are more than 1,300 species of bats around the world, and many of them are providing ecosystem services. In tropical areas, fruit bats and pollinating bats are helping to provide us food.

Closer to home, our bats are insectivores, eating a diversity of insects, some of which are pests. A single little brown bat can consume roughly 2,000 insects in one night. Research from 2011 estimated that nationwide, bats provide us a value of $3.7 billion. That’s a huge number, and assigns a value to what bats do for us, especially what they are saving us in pesticide application costs.

What is white-nose syndrome, and how deadly is it to bats?

White-nose syndrome is a disease impacting bats hibernating in caves or mines where they are encountering a fungus that causes the disease. It came from Europe and arrived in the United States in the winter of 2006-07 in New York. Since then, the disease has spread to 33 states and seven Canadian provinces. It’s one of the worst wildlife diseases we’ve seen in a very long time.

Ohio biologists currently conduct biannual counts of two hibernacula (places where bats hibernate) to assess the impacts of white-nose syndrome. The mines are located in Preble and Lawrence counties. Mortality rates are 90 to 99 percent (90 in Preble and 99 in Lawrence). High mortality rates like these are consistent with reports from other states. It really is decimating.

What is being done to combat white-nose syndrome?

There’s been a lot of work to stop the spread of the fungus. Many caves and mines on public properties have been closed and there are decontamination and equipment restrictions in place.

In addition, there’s the research — understanding the fungus and how the disease operates — and the treatments that can slow the spread and growth of the fungus. Unfortunately, the disease has spread through a lot of the eastern states already. Our populations have already been hit hard.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some of the caves first impacted have seen mortality rates plateau. There is also evidence of bats changing their behaviors to possibly avoid exposure to the disease.

What are some other dangers bats face?

Habitat loss, such as the loss of forest land, is a significant threat to bats. Also, bats that are highly migratory, such as the red bat, silver-haired bat and hoary bat, face mortality from collisions with wind turbines.  

Models estimate a 90 percent decline in hoary bat populations within 50 years if nothing is done. It’s a complicated issue because we’re trying to provide clean energy. Fortunately, there are ways to help bats at those facilities. It’s about making connections with the wind facilities and working with them to mitigate losses.

What are some of the biggest questions you get about bats?

The most common is about bat houses — how to build them and where best to place them. Quite a few people know about white-nose syndrome, or that bats provide great pest control services, so they want to help or attract them to their property. Bat house are a good way to do that.

The other question is: “I have a colony of bats in my home; how can I get rid of it?” If you have a colony, it’s likely a group of females gathered to birth and raise their pups. In that case, it’s best to work with a professional, such as a wild animal control operator who specializes in bats, to safely and permanently remove the bats from the residence.