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Taught me to fly

Na na na na na na na na Bat Chat!

I got nothin' tonight, and the newsletter is out, so let's learn about bats.

The leaves are turning color, the temperature is dropping, and society is welcoming its returning pumpkin spice overlords. Yep, it is officially autumn. At the time of writing, Halloween decorations are going up all over the place, including the my zoo. This provided me with the inspiration for this article, bats. Which management deemed more appropriate than using this space to tell you about my awesome black cat, Ebony.

I’m the primary keeper for our nineteen greater spear-nosed bats. They inhabit the two exhibits in the Bat Cave in the Tropics Building. The twelve females are on the left, and the males are on the right. “The boys” generally hang out on the door right in front of the window, while the girls like to go for darker corners and rockwork. They’re very much creatures of habit, and new branches usually have to remain in the exhibit for about a month before they get used. Both groups are most active immediately after “brunch”, generally right after the zoo opens at ten. Then, they’ll be swooping back and forth, and hopping along the ground. As omnivores, they get a mix of fruits and veggies, as well as crushed primate biscuits, hard boiled eggs, and the same meat that we feed our big cats. Their favorite treat is whole ears of corn. I’ll put one in, silk and all, and it will be stripped down by the next day.

The exhibit glass isn’t sound proof, and so working in the exhibits provides a great opportunity to hear a range of opinions on bats. Now, myself, personally, I love bats. Always have. I took care of flying foxes (the really big bats) at the Topeka Zoo, and have never been afraid of them. Unfortunately, a lot of people are, and there’s really not any good reason for it. Now, I’ll admit, there’s some of the smaller species that have nose and ear folds that only a mother could love, but the spear-noses look pretty much like mice with wings. Which may not be the best comparison…Well, I think they’re adorable.

Regardless, they are behind glass, and I promise, they won’t get you. I’m in with them five days a week, and they’ve never tried to harm me, unless I’ve been picking them up for a vet exam. As the daily “we’re going to pee on you so you go away!” routine doesn’t technically count as harm. I’m in much more danger from poking my eye out with a branch, or tripping on the rockwork, or hitting my head on a light. Really, in zookeeping, it’s not the animals that’ll getcha, it’s the exhibits.

Bats are truly fascinating creatures. They make up about a quarter of the mammal species in the world, and are found on every continent except for Antarctica. Out of over a thousand species, there’s only three types of vampire bats, and none of those are in the forty-plus species found in the States. It should be noted that vampire bats are one of the few altruistic animals. Those that have fed well will feed hungry adults that they’re not related to. Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly (flying squirrels just glide). Their wings have the same bones as our hands, just elongated. “Blind as a bat” is a much used expression, and is quite untrue. Some of the smaller species have tiny eyes, but they can all see just fine. However, the way that the microchiropterans (small bats, as opposed to the flying foxes) navigate is via echolocation. Also, they’re not going to get stuck in your hair. If you’ve got a bat flying around you, it’s snacking on the mosquitos that are trying to snack on *you*. Bats consume literally tons of insects every night during the warmer months, and provide important pest control services. Other bats pollinate over 500 species of plants, including banana, mango, cacao, guava, and agave (where tequila comes from). Still others spread seeds across wide areas and maintain a healthy ecosystem.

Unfortunately, bats in the United States are in serious trouble. A fungus brought over from Europe causes White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). While the bats hibernate, their body temperature drops, and the fungus spreads across their faces and wings. The bats wake up in the middle of winter, burn through their energy reserves, and die by the hundreds of thousands. The fungus has spread across the eastern states, and is confirmed in two counties in Illinois. To help our winged friends, you can put up bat boxes (like bird houses) in your backyard, and get free mosquito control in the process. Who doesn’t like the idea of fewer mosquitos?

I really do enjoy working with my batty bats, and hope that you’ll stop by and see them soon!


Bat Boxes! I'm picturing them all Batman-themed, which would be awesome. XD
The Internet is being ridiculously slow right now, otherwise I'd go looking for some. I'm sure there are some great ones out there. :D

March 2017

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