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  Bat Conservation International



Guest Editorial
by Elaine Acker, Bat Conservation International

The Beneficial Thunderstorm in the Night

A powerful thunderstorm moves across Central Texas. I watch the dark clouds gather over the Hill Country, then turn on the local television news station and listen as their meteorologists explain the sophisticated Doppler radar images. Over the past several years, we've learned to experience nature not only through our five senses, but through technology, with some surprising results.

While more than 100 Doppler radar sites situated around the United States are now indispensable for meteorologists, the system also provides exciting new opportunities for biologists. In the spring of 1995, the U.S. Weather Service's new Doppler radar was turned on in New Braunfels, Texas, near San Antonio.  One clear July evening, the radar detected dense clouds forming near several Central Texas caves and moving quickly toward scattered groups of clouds in the southeast. A closer investigation revealed that, rather than cumulonimbus clouds, the images were colonies of Mexican free-tailed bats, Tadarida brasilensis, streaming into the night toward clusters of insects flying over fertile croplands.

Bats emerging from Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin.
From March through November, thousands of bats emerge
from beneath Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Tex., to
consume up to 30,000 pounds of insects each evening.
Graphic courtesy of Bat Conservation International.

Bracken Cave, one of several caves carved beneath the region's limestone hills, is the summer home of some 20 million free-tailed bats-the world's largest colony. Through radar studies, scientists now have proof that these bats fly and feed up to two miles high, and sometimes ride tailwinds that carry them over long distances at speeds of more than 60 miles per hour. Agriculture professionals applaud the bats, which feed on migratory corn earworm moths (also known as cotton bollworms), America's number-one agricultural pest. The bats from Bracken Cave alone dine on an impressive 200 tons of insects every night.

Bats magazine.
BCI's journal is BATS, for which Elaine Acker is a contributing editor.
Graphic courtesy of Bat Conservation International.

Mexican free-tailed bats migrate between the United States and Mexico, and Bat Conservation International, which owns Bracken Cave, is working to protect critical roost sites in both countries. These bats often roost in large colonies and are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance. Vandals have destroyed entire colonies in minutes, and urban expansion has eliminated thousands of natural roosts in caves and forests.

In response to an alarming decline in bat populations worldwide, Dr. Merlin Tuttle founded BCI in 1982. The organization now serves as an important link between the scientific community and the public, providing factual information on issues surrounding bats and working to protect habitats around the world.

Because the fear of bats has been perpetuated by persistent myths and superstitions, let's set the record straight. There are nearly 1,000 species of bats, which are among the most gentle, beneficial, and necessary animals on earth. They occupy almost every habitat worldwide, keeping insects in check, pollinating flowers, and dispersing seeds that regenerate tropical forests.  Bats do not attack people or become entangled in human hair, and even bats that are sick rarely bite unless handled.  Left alone, bats pose little threat to humans, but instead are valuable members of the ecological community.

Through the conservation efforts of BCI and its partners, bats now have an opportunity to overcome decades of bad press and find their way into sound wildlife management plans.

North American Bat Conservation PartnershipCurrently, BCI works with transportation departments, which are engineering bridge designs that accommodate bats; with mining companies, which are closing abandoned mine shafts with bat-friendly gates; with educators, who are attending workshops and learning to create interpretive programs for their home communities; and with bat house enthusiasts, who are experimenting with a variety of bat house designs that offer vital alternative roosts.

Another very important initiative in which BCI now participates is the North American Bat Conservation Partnership, an alliance of bat researchers, and state, federal, and non-governmental agencies across Mexico, Canada, and the United States.  The collaboration provides an essential network of communication, allowing partners to share resources, funding, and critical information while working together to develop local management strategies that will lead to continent-wide priorities and initiatives for bat conservation. Involvement in the partnership is voluntary among those who encourage a free exchange of ideas and scientific information, embracing regional diversity in methodology, concepts and interpretations.

Similar, continent-wide programs exist for the conservation of migratory bird species. Like hummingbirds, some bat species are important migratory pollinators, yet the public relations gap between hummingbirds and bats is a vast one. While tiny hummers can be observed during the day, hovering above brightly colored flowers, bats take the night shift, when most of us are sleeping. Humans tend to fear the unknown, and those who haven't observed lesser long-nosed bats, Leptonycteris curasoae, pollinating a saguaro cactus or a greater long-nosed bat, L. nivalis, pollinating an agave plant may not have the same level of enthusiasm for bats they feel for a ruby throated hummingbird. (Sometimes, however, opinions change among margarita fans when they discover that tequila comes from bat-pollinated agave).

Bats emerging from a cave.
Despite the perceptions spawned by myths and Halloween tales,
bats are among the most beneficial of all earth's species.
Photo courtesy of Bat Conservation International.

Still, human fear and ignorance remain a bat's greatest enemy, and education remains conservation's greatest challenge. I'm convinced that while scientific advances offer another perspective on the natural world, the most effective antidote for fear is not technology, but personal experience. In coming years, BCI hopes to make Bracken Cave more accessible to the public, sharing the nightly emergence that some visitors have described as "an awe-inspiring encounter with nature," and "one of nature's great events."

As America becomes progressively more urban, these types of first-hand experiences are critical. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of Americans now live in metropolitan areas.  Only by trading television screens for scenic, desert vistas and armchair traveling for a brisk walk in the forest can we truly appreciate the outdoors, feel a personal commitment to conservation, and appreciate each species' unique role in our ecosystem, including our own.


Elaine Acker is a conservation advancement specialist for Bat Conservation International, where her favorite conservation tool is the written word. She reaches a wide audience through articles in magazines, newspapers, and on Websites, produces annual reports, and serves as contributing editor for BATS magazine.
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