Nature Notes: Gone batty

Published 5:03 pm Friday, September 29, 2023

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By Ryen Nielsen

Naturalist/Teacher Intern

Many different animals, like spiders and ravens, are associated with Halloween, but did you know that one Halloween favorite actually sleeps right through the holiday? Starting around October, hundreds to thousands of bats will begin to group together in hibernacula where they will begin to hibernate. A hibernaculum is a kind of home an animal chooses to spend the winter in. Like bears, bats can hibernate in caves but that’s not the only place they’ll choose to hibernate.

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Where a bat chooses to hibernate depends on what species of bat it is. Myotis bats, like the little brown bat, congregate in large numbers in caves. Mystery Cave in Forestville State Park hosts one of the largest hibernating groups of this kind of bat in Minnesota. Other bats, like the eastern red bat, like to hibernate in standing dead trees. Houses and bridges can be good hibernacula for big brown bats. Some bat species, like the hoary bat, don’t hibernate at all! Hoary bats migrate instead and go from Canada and the northern United States all the way to southern California and Mexico!

Bat-shaped decorations are pretty popular around Halloween, so it’s safe to say that most people think bats are pretty scary. One scary myth you might have heard is that all bats carry rabies. In reality, only about 0.5% of bats have contracted rabies and most of these infected bats will die before ever encountering a human. If you are bitten by a bat, you should still seek medical attention, but just being around bats will not have you contract rabies.

Another common belief is that bats will purposely fly into your hair and get stuck. It might be scary to see a bat flying at you, but they want to avoid you just as much as you want to avoid them. Bats use echolocation to see their surroundings because they have poor eyesight. Bats echolocate by sending out a sound wave, the sound wave bounces off objects, and then echoes back towards the bat carrying information about the size, shape, and distance of the objects. A bat may fly towards you at first, but will divert away from you once they use their echolocation to sense where you are.

While bats themselves aren’t scary, many bat species in Minnesota and the United States are facing a pretty terrifying disease. White Nose Syndrome is a disease caused by a fungus that is decimating bat populations. This fungus repeatedly wakes bats up during hibernation which causes them to expend twice the amount of energy as properly hibernating bats. This can lead to starvation and eventually death. Bats infected by White Nose Syndrome can be identified by a white fuzz around their mouth and wings.

Four out of eight bat species in Minnesota are currently declining due to White Nose Syndrome. You can help prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome by respecting cave closures, thoroughly disinfecting your clothing and equipment between cave visits, and reporting any infected or dead bats to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. You can also help bat populations and yourself by building bat houses on your property. Did you know that bats are great pest control agents? A single bat can eat up to 600 insects a night and they often prey on pests. At the Nature Center, we have bat houses built near our pond and we see often bats swooping around using their echolocation to look for a meal. Our bat houses give the bats a nice safe home and we get free pest control! It’s a win-win.

October Events at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center

Oct. 7: Turtle Field Day with Dr. Jeff Tamplin, 10 a.m. to noon

Oct. 7: Sola Fide Observatory Open House, 8:30-10:30 p.m.

Oct. 13: Cedar River Astronomy Club, 8-9 p.m.

Oct. 14: Eclipse the Nature Center 8k, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Oct. 14: Partial Solar Eclipse Viewing Party, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.