These misunderstood creatures are an important part of our ecosystem.
By Sarah Strew, Lead Nature Camp and Adult Programs, VINS
Bats have one of the worst reputations in the animal kingdom. They are maligned in folklore worldwide. However, these underappreciated and misunderstood creatures are vital to healthy ecosystems. Recently, visitors and staff at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt., learned about these amazing animals from Vermont Bat Center President Barry Genzlinger.
To fully appreciate bats, according to Genzlinger, one must first realize that approximately 1/5 of all mammal species are bats, about 1,200 different species. Vermont is home to nine bat species, all insect eaters. Bats are among Earth’s greatest pest controls. Genzlinger notes Vermont’s big brown bat can eat 1,000 mosquitoes an hour — approximately one every three seconds. Considering bats hunt all night, one can appreciate their insect-eating services and why we should care about them.
Tragically, Vermont’s bats are in trouble. The culprit: white-nose syndrome. Caves are crucial hibernation dens for many bats. White-nose syndrome, explained Genzlinger, is caused by a fungus that grows on surfaces inside caves — including on bats’ wings and faces. The fungus is itchy and can wake a hibernating bat, each time depleting fat stores meant to sustain it through winter. Repeated waking during hibernation makes white-nose syndrome lethal to bats when they exhaust their fat reserves before spring — and food — return.
White-nose syndrome has devastated cave-bat populations in Vermont in the past decade, resulting in several of the hardest-hit species being designated threatened or endangered. In many cases, mortality has been around 90 percent. Genzlinger describes Vermont’s Greely Mine cave, home to approximately 25,000 little brown bats. Two years after white-nose syndrome arrived, only 15 remained.
Despite the toll white-nose syndrome has taken, there is cause for hope. Here in Vermont, bat allies — from state wildlife managers to conservation groups — are working toward their recovery. Since its 2015 founding, the Vermont Bat Center has been on the front lines, rehabilitating injured, sick and orphaned bats for release back to the wild.
Many Vermonters have joined the effort, too. Providing safe habitats and roosts is the simplest way property owners can help bats. Genzlinger acknowledges bats can be a nuisance if they get in our houses. There is a way to entice bats to live around your property and not your home: put up a bat house, which provides a place for bats to roost and raise their young. This creates bat friendly habitat, and you reap the benefits of having these insect-devouring animals living around your home.
Through education and outreach, Genzlinger is spreading the message that bats perform vital ecological roles and do not deserve their bad reputation. He hopes the next time you get to watch one of these incredible little animals swooping through the evening air, you will view them in a more positive light and take action to help them.
To learn more about bats, for information about putting up your own bat house, to support bat conservation, or to know what to do if you find an injured bat, visit vermontbatcenter.org
Sarah Strew has been the lead for Nature Camp and Adult Programs at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science since 2014. She earned her master’s in environmental studies from Antioch University New England where she concentrated in education. Sarah and her husband love living in the Upper Valley. She is an outdoor enthusiast and enjoys skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, gardening in the summer, and hiking with her dogs all year round.