Bats are just about the most misunderstood creatures on the planet, often thought to be creepy, spooky or dangerous. “They want to suck your blood, they’ll fly into your hair and they spread disease” are just a few common myths. No wonder bats are a staple of scary Halloween lore, costumes, and decorations.
In truth, bats are one of the most helpful of species, gobbling thousands of insects a night and reducing our need for chemical insecticides. A nursing female can eat more than her weight in bugs each night — up to 4,500 insects. So just imagine what a whole maternity colony can do for mosquito control over the course of a summer!
To bust some myths, there are no vampire bats in New Jersey — or anyplace else in the United States. Bats typically don’t attack people; they’re shy and will inch away if you wander into a barn or attic where they’re roosting. Like any mammal they can carry rabies, but the disease is found in less than 1 percent of bats.
Bats have suffered greatly in the past several years due to white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a European fungus that found its way into their winter hibernation caves, known as hibernacula. White-nose syndrome attacks bats’ delicate wing membranes and harms their ability to fly and feed. It also disrupts their deep hibernation sleep, causing them to wake up and fly outside, depleting their precious energy reserves. They then starve or freeze to death.
“Here in New Jersey, we’ve lost 98 percent of our cave-hibernating bats,” said MacKenzie Hall, a conservation biologist with the state Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program. New Jersey’s largest bat cave is the Hibernia Mine in Morris County, and prior to the arrival of the white-nose fungus there were about 30,000 bats spending winters there. Now there are fewer than 500. Tiny bat skeletons litter the floor of the mine.
Across the country, researchers are trying to unlock the mysteries of white-nose syndrome to figure out how to rescue cave-hibernating bats. Among the questions: Can bats develop a resistance to white-nose syndrome? Do the offspring of bats that survived the disease have any inherited immunity? Are there naturally-occurring substances that kill the white-nose fungus?
So far, it appears that big brown bats — one of six year-round species found in New Jersey — do have a resistance. In fact, the state’s population of big brown bats has increased, possibly because the precipitous decline of little brown bats has resulted in less competition for food.
There are some glimmers of hope.
In New York the populations of some bat caves seem to be growing. But it’s not clear, says Hall, whether it’s a true rebound or simply relocating bats. Other research has indicated that there may be naturally-occurring yeasts and compounds that thwart the white-nose fungus and could protect bats.
But it’s too early to tell. Right now, says Hall, “we’re just hoping to see a leveling-off in the losses of our cave-hibernating bats.”
New Jersey’s bats — and the researchers trying to help them — are the subject of the Halloween episode of “The Creature Show,” a new Internet documentary film series focusing on the state’s rare and endangered species. Scheduled for release this week, the Halloween episode features bats congregating in an old church in Warren County and roosting in a child’s bedroom window in Hunterdon County. It also shows researchers placing tiny radio trackers on northern long-eared bats, a newly-listed federally threatened species.
To see the bat episode, go to www.creatureshow.com.
To learn more about bats, attend a special screening of the Creature Show on Friday, October 30, at 6 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. The program includes a visit by a live bat and a question-and-answer session with MacKenzie Hall and fellow bat biologist Stephanie Feigin. Register at www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/newjersey/events/new-jersey-creature-show-halloween-special.xml.
And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.