Big effort to better understand bats begins (Thinkstock)
Big effort to better understand bats begins
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There is an effort to better understand the ecological role that bats play. It spans 31 states and 10 Canadian provinces. The effort also seeks to better understand the threats bats face from climate change. Bats also face threats from habitat loss and wind energy development.

The North American Bat Monitoring Program involves acoustic surveys. The surveys uncover the high-pitched frequencies given off by the flying mammals as they capture bugs and navigate in the dark.

"It's long overdue," said Patty Stevens. She is the U.S. Geological Survey's branch chief for Trust Species and Habitats. The branch is at the Fort Collins Science Center in Colorado. That's where the program's data will be stored and made available. "It's going to provide a lot of information to natural resource managers."

Researchers say the monitoring program has been spurred by a disease called white-nose syndrome. The disease has killed millions of bats. And the disease is spreading.

North America has some 150 species of bats. Forty-seven of them are in the United States. Some migrate more than 500 miles. Others hibernate in caves or abandoned mines. Less than a handful of bat species are well understood.

"Most of our bats are very small. They fly at night. They're very difficult to study," said Susan Loeb. She's a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service based in Clemson, South Carolina. "In the last 10 to 20 years, we're getting better and better technology. It allows us to learn about bats."

For example, acoustic monitoring of bats at one time involved carrying equipment on a vehicle. Now, a device can be hooked up to an iPhone. Scientists are also trying to perfect software that can detect the species of bat making the sound.

Loeb is the lead author of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plan for the North American Bat Monitoring Program. The plan set out the opening strategy.

The plan relies heavily on acoustic monitoring. This includes both mobile monitoring sites and stationary sites. The number of sites varies by state as the program gets going. Idaho got off to a tough start this year after giant wildfires stalled efforts at about 10 sites.

Researchers are using other methods as well. These include counting hibernating bats in winter. Other methods include doing maternity colony counts in summer.

In five years researchers should have enough information to spot trends.

"We know that many bat populations are declining. But we don't know the magnitude of that decline," Loeb said.

Information like that is important because bats are thought to be a key element in forest health due to their diet of insects.

Not much information exists on bat insect consumption. But scientists estimate the Brazilian free-tailed bat colonies in Texas that often number more than a million individuals can consume more than 8 tons of insects in a night.

Most North American bats eat insects, but there are some nectar-feeding bats that help pollinate plants. The iconic saguaro cactus in Arizona is one example. It is pollinated by the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-tongued bat.

Scientists say that a more recent threat to bats are wind farms. An estimated 200,000 to 800,000 bats die annually in collisions with spinning blades.

"We still don't know why bats are getting killed by these turbines," said Loeb. "Why can't they detect them? Are they attracted? And how do we deter them?"

Scientists are trying to figure that out. Loeb said clues might ultimately be found in the bat monitoring program.

Meanwhile, scientists are also working to raise awareness of bats. They are coordinating much of those efforts leading up to Halloween with National Bat Week. Loeb herself is spending part of the week at a meeting of The North American Society for Bat Research.

"Using Halloween as a means to engage people that bats aren't bad maybe one way to do it," Loeb said. "The public perception of bats is changing as people learn how important they are and how fascinating they are."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are bats so important?
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COMMENTS (35)
  • brandony-ver
    11/04/2015 - 08:27 a.m.

    Last year I had my window open in my bedroom, and in the middle of the night my sister ran in "WAKE UP THERE'S A BAT D:". So it was trapped in my room for a few hours...

  • jocelync-612-
    11/04/2015 - 09:29 a.m.

    Bats are important because they eat insects, and if there are a lot of bats then they can eat a lot of insects. But if there are no bats or bats become endangered then there would be a lot of insects. If there are a lot of insects, people can get sick.

  • darlenec-bog
    11/04/2015 - 10:22 a.m.

    lol love this story

  • stevenh-mci
    11/04/2015 - 11:34 a.m.

    Bats are important because some bats help balance the population of mosquitoes.

  • stevenh-mci
    11/04/2015 - 11:35 a.m.

    Bats are important because some species of bats help balance the population of mosquitoes.

  • anailas-cur
    11/04/2015 - 11:35 a.m.

    this is very interesting because I really like bats and I like learning about them ;)

  • michaelx-wes
    11/04/2015 - 12:14 p.m.

    The reason why bat's are important because they are fascinating to look at and they are like animals,they can do whatever they want.

  • nancin-612-
    11/04/2015 - 02:46 p.m.

    they are so adorable and wow.

  • elenag-ver
    11/04/2015 - 04:57 p.m.

    Bats are so important because the article talk about how their is a better effort to understand ecological role that bats play. The north american bat monitoring program involves acoustic survey. The surveys uncover the high-pitched frequences given off by the flying mammals as they capture bugs and navigate in the dark. most north american bats eat insects, but there are some nectar-feeding bats that help pollinate plants. Some scientists say that a more recent threat to bats are wind farms. An estimated 200,000 to 800,000 bats die annually in collisions with spinning blades.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    11/04/2015 - 07:20 p.m.

    I would have never thought that 200,000 to 800,000 bats die a year by flying into wind turbines. Hopefully scientists will discover the other reasons for the bats drastic decrease in population so they can stop what is harming them. Bats are important to all sorts of environments, as they eat insects and sometimes even work as pollinators.

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