Bats: More than just Halloween decorations

Cover photo: Silver-haired Bat (photo credit: Toby Thorne)

By Toby Thorne

Participants record bat observations at the 2016 Credit River BioBlitz (photo credit: Shannon Murray)

I have been catching bats since I was eleven years old, and I have been fortunate enough to meet a lot of different bats over the years. I may be biased, but never have I met an “ugly” one, so it always amuses me when I get to introduce a bat to someone who has never met one before. The most common reaction is “it’s much cuter than I expected!”. I can only blame Hollywood and the like for giving people a negative impression. In reality, bats have a lot going for them in the cuteness stakes. They are mammals, which is always a strong place to start. They also often have big ears – more than one bat species has been likened to Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter. In the bats’ case, the big ears are for their echolocation, which is a remarkable story in and of itself that makes bats extra cool.

As well as exceeding expectations for cuteness, there are also far more bats around than most people think. Almost a quarter of all mammal species around the world are bats, and they are easier to find than you might imagine. In the summertime you can find bats almost everywhere – even in downtown Toronto. When people ask me where to find bats my usual reply is that the first thing they should do is step outside on a summer evening, and look up!

Experts examine the wings of a Little Brown Myotis (photo credit: Toby Thorne)

Yet, we cannot take bats’ ubiquity for granted. Many bat species in North America have been devastated by a disease – white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS is a fungal pathogen introduced to North America by humans. WNS has killed millions of bats in the northeast, among the biggest declines ever recorded in mammals, and it continues to spread west at a terrifying rate. In southern Ontario, where WNS was first recorded in 2010, little brown myotis have gone from the most common species to one of the rarest. The Native Bat Conservation Program at the Toronto Zoo – on which I work – is part of a wider effort to help bats weather this storm. It is a massive challenge, but we have been getting small wins, and the affected species seem to be hanging on.

Our efforts at the Zoo involve a combined approach of monitoring bats and public outreach. Our bat team spent many long nights this summer out in the forests of the Greater Toronto Area catching, examining and tracking bats. Through this work we are striving to find out what bats we have in the area, and what environments they need to survive. It’s only by understanding these basic facts of their ecology that we can hope to help them weather threats – and it’s better late than never to be finding out. We also work hard to share our love of bats and the work we are doing as far and wide as we can – check out our bat page on the Zoo’s website, and our ‘Bat Diaries’ videos on the Zoo’s youtube channel  for more details and discover what you can do to help bats too!

So this bat week spare a thought for bats as the marvellous, cute and imperilled creatures that they are! So much more than a spooky Halloween decoration.

Toby Thorne is a bat researcher with the Toronto Zoo’s Native Bat Conservation Program. He is motivated by a desire to learn more about bats, and to contribute to their conservation through engaging the public and by ensuring activities that might impact bats can be planned with the best information about bat ecology.

 

 

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