Adventures of a Citizen Scientist: The Year of the Bat

Posted: July 3, 2012

The little brown bat is a common sight in Virginia at dusk. They can eat more than 1,000 insects in one hour. (Photo by courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Happy Year of the Bat! 

The United Nations has declared this year a special time to celebrate the only flying mammal.

There are more than 1,000 bat species in the world and they are extremely important parts of their ecosystems. Insect-eating bats consume more than half of their body weight in insects nightly, making them America’s natural bug busters. Bats also distribute seeds, aid in crop pollination, are vital to cave ecosystems and provide a food source for other nocturnal animals.

About one-fifth of mammal species are bats. Virginia has 17 bat species. We even have a state bat, the Virginia big-eared bat, that lives in the Shenandoah Valley.

Sadly, bats in the eastern United States and Canada are dying in mass. White-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that kills hibernating bats, was first seen in 2006. The infection makes a powdery white fungus coating on bats and disrupts their natural hibernation cycle. Mortality rate is very high, near 100 percent in some hibernating colonies. 

According to Bat Conservation International, more than 5.7 million bats have died from this infection. Virginia big-eared bat hibernation caves are endangered by white-nose syndrome. Our commonly seen big brown bat and little brown bat are among the species infected. The spread of white-nose syndrome made grim headlines again in May when the infection was found in federally endangered gray bats.

Fortunately, research is underway and steps are being taken to contain the disease. Some caves are closed and in others, cavers are exercising caution by decontaminating their clothing. As we learn more about this infection, hope is on the way to preserve this most important mammal. 

My favorite way to help so far has been “adopting” a bat through Bat Conservation International.  My donation will be used for research, preservation and education on bats.  In return, I get a plush toy bat, species information and an “adoption certificate.”
Installing a bat house is another fun way to help our local bats. Whether homemade or purchased, a bat house is a great way to support the number one predator of nighttime insect pests as they continue to lose natural habitats.

Bat Myths and Facts

No column about bats is complete without some myth-busting. It is a fallacy that bats get tangled in people’s hair. And you can sleep easy at night, because there are no vampire bats in our area; they all live in Latin America. Finally, bats are not blind.  They are equipped with echolocation (sonar) as well as highly specialized eyes for hunting at night.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of fear due to misinformation about bats. Rabid bats have been found in all US states but Hawaii. However, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries reports that more rabies cases in Virginia are attributed to raccoons, foxes and feral cats than our native bats.

Still, bats should be treated with caution. Bat bites need immediate medical attention and the Center for Disease Control recommends medical attention if a bat is found in a room with a sleeping child, a mentally impaired person or an intoxicated person who may not remember a bite. In cases of bites or possible bites, the CDC recommends safely capturing the bat for testing. The CDC website has guidelines for capturing a bat. The Bat Conservation International website also has information on removing bats from rooms and exclusion of bats from homes.

Websites to Learn More

—Bat facts from VDGIF:

—Information on white-nose syndrome:

—Bat Conservation International:

—Year of the Bat 2011-2012 official website:

—How to build a bathouse:

Stephanie Gardner is a Virginia Master Naturalist and special collections librarian at Bridgewater College.

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