Going to Bat for … Bats!
Going batty, bat guano crazy, bats in the belfry–these are a few of the less than enduring terms applied to what may be one of nature’s most misunderstood creatures, often depicted by myths, books, and movies as being ruthless, bloodthirsty and generally not fun or cudddly at all. Well, we have to agree there’s nothing cuddly about bats. Weird looking creatures who like to sleep upside down in caves and trees, but as far as we know they’ve never driven anyone crazy or indulged in any vampire blood drinking throwdowns. Instead consider this: Bats are incredibly important to the ecosystem and by pollinating plants and eliminating pests, they save American farmers billions of dollars a year by preventing crop damage and helping eliminate the cost of pesticides.
So why not pay homage to these winged creatures during International Bat Week that runs from October 24th to, appropriately enough, October 31st better known as Halloween making it a perfect time for a bat road trip. Yes, you read that correctly.
Yes, the name says it all. The cave is absolutely mammoth … the longest and largest cave system in the entire world and one of the oldest tour attractions in North America with some 426 miles have been explored and at least another 600 miles to go. In other words, as huge as it seems, less than half of the cave is what you see. Rangers are on hand for guided tours through what is one of the oldest tour attractions in North America and are experts at pointing out all the wildlife on the property. That, of course, includes bats. A total of 13 types of bats have been confirmed at this national park, with two other species reported but so far that hasn’t been confirmed.
But don’t look for all the bats in the cave. Sure some are including species that live in the cave while waiting to give birth or during their very long winter naps–a hibernation lasting from mid-October to mid-April. Other species choose to hang out (and we do mean hang) in trees, under bridges, and the eves of buildings around the park.
The federal government had declared that three of Mammoth’s bat species are either “threatened” or “endangered.” Both the Indiana bat and grey bat are considered endangered; the northern long-eared bat is threatened.
Scientists at the national park constantly monitor the health of the bat populations, and the parks hosts occasional public “Bat Nights” at which visitors are invited to watch as bats are captured from the cave, assessed and released.
Immerse yourself in all things bats by becoming a Bat Biologist during Mammoth Cave’s annual Bat Night.
Because Lost River has a body of water inside the cave, it’s prone to dampness and flooding … which doesn’t work for bats.
Occasionally a young male bat will enter the cave looking for love … but when he doesn’t find a girlfriend, he heads back out.
Then head to Marvel Cave, the deepest cave in Missouri (383 feet below the ground at its deepest point) which today is located near the entrance to Silver Dollar City, one of the nation’s most celebrated theme parks. Interestingly, the park evolved from the cave, which was Branson’s first tourist attraction.
The Osage Indians discovered the cave around 1500 and was regularly explored starting in the late 1800s by miners searching for marble and lead. What they found instead was lots and lots of bat guano. You might be thinking that’s a load of crap but consider this. Bat guano at the time was used for both fertilizer and ammunition and for those willing to mine it, the payoff was $700 a ton or more than $20,000 in today’s dollars) per ton. Yes, back in the day, you could get rich off bat poop!
Missouri is nicknamed “The Cave State,” and that means it’s also home to lots of bats. Of the 46 species found in this country, a third – 16 – call Missouri home. Of the 16, four species live in Marvel Cave, including two types of brown bats, plus tricolor bats and endangered gray bats. But, unfortunately, because of disease, pollution, and pesticides, the bat population inside the cave is about a tenth of what it used to be. These days, there are only approximately 40,000 bats at Marvel Cave.
The best time to see them is during the last two tours of the day. During those evening tours, guests stand a good chance of seeing bats in the cave’s Mammoth Room and Cathedral Room.
Silver Dollar City loves its bats and pays homage to them at its annual Harvest Festival where pumpkins are carved to look like bats.
Bat Facts*: Gaining an Appreciation for Fascinating Flying Mammals
🦇Bats are the only mammals capable of true flight. (Take that, “flying” squirrels! You guys glide, not fly.)
🦇There are more than 1,400 bat species around the world, with 46 species found in the United States.
🦇Since bats are mammals, they give birth to live young. A baby bat is called a “pup,” and most mamas give birth to just one per pregnancy.
🦇Bats clean themselves much like cats do. They spend a lot of time grooming … so they always look good for the humans who get those rare glimpses of them!
🦇You’ve heard the term “blind as a bat.” Compared to other animals, bats do have very poor eyesight. But they more than make up for that by having incredible hearing and amazing brains.
🦇Most bats are nocturnal, so they have special adaptations that help them get around and find food in the dark. They can fly fast and track small prey using “echolocation.” This means they emit high-frequency sounds that bounce off objects. They listen for those echoes and then their brains interpret the sounds so they can figure out what the object is. This is what allows them to avoid crashing into things (and each other) while grabbing insects to munch on mid-air.
🦇If you have mosquito problems in your backyard (if you have a pool back there, for example) but are hesitant to use pesticides, consider taking the natural route and using bats to combat the pests. You can make a “bat house” to try to attract them. A bat can eat its body weight in insects in each night … and that can be up to 600 mosquitos!
🦇Climate change is making life incredibly difficult for bats. Heat waves and droughts cause overheating and starvation; wildfires destroy habitats; storms and heavy rainfall impact caves and flood bat roosts; and freezing temperatures block cave entrances or cause bats to freeze to death.
🦇A big risk for bats today is “white-nose syndrome,” a fungal disease that spread rapidly up and down the East Coast and has now moved across the country. The fungus, which appears as a white, fuzzy growth on the nose, doesn’t kill the bat. But the itching from the fungus causes bats to wake up during their hibernation – when there are no insects to eat – and results in the bat slowly starving to death. Though scientists have tried several ways to help bats build an immunity to the fungus, bat populations have plummeted in recent years.
*Facts provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior; National Park Service; and Marvel Cave guide Vivian Ireland, who referred to “Bats of Missouri” by Justin Boyles, John Timpone and Lynn Robins for Indiana State University Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation.
We don’t have a bat recipe to share but Silver Dollar City Succotash is a sure winner and perfect for fall. Here’s the recipe courtesy of Silver Dollar City’s Culinary & Craft School
- 1 pound lightly breaded okra
- 8 ounce frozen whole kernel corn (Fresh corn is certainly an option in this recipe)
- 8 ounce yellow summer squash
- 8 ounce diced/chunked chicken (pre-cooked)
- 4 ounce green peppers
- 4 ounce of onion
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Butter flavored Vegetable Oil, as needed
- 1 Saute onions and peppers with butter flavored vegetable oil. Remove from the skillet. Saute chicken in the same skillet with oil. Remove after heating thoroughly. Saute corn and squash in the same skillet with oil. Remove.
- 2 Fry okra in skillet until golden brown. Add salt, pepper, and garlic powder. When okra is done begin adding all the ingredients back into the skillet until reheated to desired temperature.
Photos courtesy of Silver Dollar City, Mammoth National Park, and Marvel Cave.