Expert says local bat populations at risk
Despite their reputation as blood-sucking, disease-carrying, “flying rodents” — myths perpetuated by popular culture — one Midwestern bat expert says “bats are our friends” and play a vital role in the health of our ecosystems. But they’re in trouble.
That was the message from Sharon Peterson, a bat expert from the bat education group Incredible Bats who spoke at the Iowa City Public Library on Tuesday evening to a standing-room-only crowd.
The purpose of her presentation was to dispel the myths about bats and teach Iowans why bats are necessary for the healthy balance of our ecosystems.
“Bats are finally getting the recognition they deserve as being pollinators and seed dispersers,” Peterson said.
But one thing people may not know is that bat populations throughout the state of Iowa are under severe threat.
White-nose syndrome has been steadily spreading west since its discovery in 2006, devastating entire cave populations of bats since then. Despite the precautionary measure of closing Iowa’s Maquoketa Caves to visitors from 2010 to 2012, random testing of hibernating bats positively identified white nose fungal spores on one of the bats this past winter— indicating an infestation of the Maquoketa Caves.
“Bats are migratory and move to different caves, and if they have it, they could spread it from one cave to another, but mostly, we think its brought by humans who carry the spores on their equipment from cave to cave,” said Adrian Henke, a maintenance and naturalist employee for the Maquoketa Caves State Park.
Disease is not the only threat to Iowa’s bats.
Bats that migrate from Indiana to southern Iowa each summer are finding that an ever-increasing number of trees that traditionally served as their summer roost areas have been cut down to make way for development projects. However, even with recent measures taken to protect these trees, the populations are still dropping.
“As you can imagine, these Indiana bats have just burned a bunch of energy after hibernating all winter, she’s pregnant, and just flew a long distance back up to southern Iowa, only to find that her trees are all gone and her habitat has been lost to a housing development,” said Tim Thompson, a wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Officials at the Maquoketa caves say the most important thing is to educate the public.
“Education is the key to combating this disease,” Thompson said. “Educating people about the importance of bats to our ecosystems and how people can prevent themselves from contributing to the spread of the disease is the best tool we’re exploiting. Expelling the myths is another way to get people to care more.”
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