Halloween’s scary symbols include the ghost, the witch on a broom and of course, the bat. But what’s frightening about bats is the threat to their species, says local expert Cori Lausen.
“Bats are portrayed as dangerous pests, especially at this time of year,” says Lausen, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada.
Working closely with bats, netting them and heading right into the caves where they roost, Lausen gets up close and personal with the mammal that many people still fear. She sees this as a great chance to teach people and debunk myths about the “intelligent little creatures.”
“The public is actually becoming more educated on it. People are acknowledging that these are myths even though they still float out there,” she says.
“The reality is that bats are some of our most important species. The public would be surprised to know that bats are incredibly helpful to humans. They eat large quantities of insects that are harmful to our agriculture and forestry industries and in some areas of the world, they play a key role in pollination, as well as help in seed dispersal.”
One of the biggest issues facing bats is White Nose Syndrome, a fungus yet to be found in BC that is causing mass bat die offs across North America.
While people decorate for Halloween putting bats up in windows and hanging them from porch stoops, the real mammal is preparing for hibernation, a time when they become quite vulnerable.
Human access to caves, which are also bat hibernation sites, may spread White Nose so preventing human disturbance to bats during this time is critical. When bats are disturbed during hibernation they may abandon their sites, using important energy reserves they need to survive the winter.
Last June, a gate was installed at the Queen Victoria Mine above Beasley, to protect the popular summer roosting spot which is the largest most diverse hibernaculum in the province in winter.
Lausen was nervous about how the bats would respond to the gate but is pleased that many species, even the Silver-Haired Bat are finding their way into the mine. For them, two half culverts top the gates because it wasn’t known how they’d react to the regular five inch by three feet grates.
“I’ve caught all the species that were supposed to be using it so it worked,” she says.
While bats have responded favourably, Lausen did have someone use bolt cutters to break in. Her bat detector was stolen something she finds frustrating and a potential sign of protest. She assures, in the summer, cavers are still allowed access to the site and just have to call ahead for a key and a quick lesson in how to ensure entry in a way that protects bats.
Next, Lausen and a few other researchers are learning about what bats do in the winter. They want to know what kinds stay in the province, where they’re hibernating and what they do during their winter’s rest. Bats in the West have some different behaviours during hibernation which could affect their susceptibility to White Nose.
Looking ahead to next spring, Lausen is thrilled Cody Caves will finally have a bat friendly gate installed.
Bats are also known to take up residence in both residential and commercial buildings. Lausen says this is where some misconceptions still have a hold.
“People think they’re going to gnaw on their wood and burrow through the insulation and wreck the attic of their house,” she says. “Bats don’t alter their environment. It’s these little hidden myths that are still out there.”
But those old adages of “blind as a bat” and that a bat will become tangled in ones hair have actually been debunked.
“The silver lining on the White Nose cloud, if there is one, is that it has brought bats into the public eye more and people are talking about them and what is myth and what is fact,” she says. “Bats are such an important part of our ecosystem and that’s being recognized more and more.”
Lausen asks those who come across a colony of bats to contact wildlife officials with this information to help them to determine significant locations of roosting bats.
Learn more about bats, how to build a bat house, where one can get involved in community bat programs, and what to do if one ever comes across bats on one’s property at www.kootenaybats.com.
Just because Lausen doesn’t fear bats, doesn’t mean she’s fearless. The biologist who now owns a sailboat admits to being frightened of water as a child. And spiders.
“As a biologist, once you get an appreciation for an animal it changes how you perceive them forever,” she says. “Even spiders, I can honestly say have dropped off my fear list.”