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Section of the white-nose syndrome quilt.

The white-nose syndrome quilt that was created and displayed to raise awareness of the value of bats and the threat of this disease. Photo By USFWS; Lori Pruitt


Bat Facts Calendar



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Consider a bat theme for wildlife enthusiasts on your gift list … membership in a bat conservation organization, a book about bats, or a bat box for the yard.
Incorporate red bats into your holiday decorations! Chinese artists have long used bats to represent life’s blessings .  The bats often are bright red , the color of joy.
This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, but some species have been recognized as endangered for almost 50 years.  The Indiana bat was one of 78 species on the first list of endangered species, created under the Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966, precursor to our current Endangered Species Act.
There were about 1 million Indiana bats at the time the species was listed, that sounds like a lot, but as with many endangered species, it’s important to look at populations in an historic context.  At one time, there were probably tens of millions of Indiana bats, possibly one of the most abundant mammals on earth.
Using historical accounts and an analysis of staining (i.e., discolored areas of the walls and ceilings due to consistent roosting by bats), researchers concluded that Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, once housed 9 to 13 million bats, likely including both Indiana bats and gray bats.
Paleontological analysis of prehistoric raccoon scat (aka poop) in Wyandotte Cave, Indiana, revealed bat bones, evidence that raccoons ate bats. Researchers conservatively estimated that the remains of almost 2 million bats were represented in the scat, suggesting a very large bat population, most likely dominated by Indiana bats.
Evidence indicates that some large, complex cave systems in the eastern United States once supported millions of hibernating bats. These large caves also attracted another mammal, humans. Bats and people have a long shared history in most of these large caves. Bat facts will explore that history in the coming days.
Native Americans used caves at least 4,000 years ago. They found shelter near cave entrances, but also made torches of bark and other plant material to light their way deep into the caves. One purpose for these visits was to mine chert, used to make stone tools.
Some Native Americans also used caves for ceremonial purposes, including burying their dead. Native American art found in caves reflect some of these ceremonial uses.  It is likely that many of these ceremonies were conducted in the presence of bats.
Early European settlers also extensively used caves.  One mineral sought by settlers was Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), which was used as a laxative as well as other medicinal uses.  Epsom salts can be seen in many bat caves, visible as a glittery substance lining the cave walls.
Of all historic mining in bat hibernacula, perhaps the best documented is mining of potassium nitrate, commonly called saltpeter. Caves that harbored large bat colonies were particularly sought out for saltpeter mining because bat guano was an important natural source of saltpeter.
Saltpeter mining peaked during the War of 1812 because it was used to make gunpowder and a British blockade prevented saltpeter from reaching the United States from abroad.  Evidence of saltpeter mining remains in many caves.
Disturbance of hibernating bats during saltpeter mining had an immediate impact on bat populations.  Perhaps more damaging at some sites were physical changes to accommodate mining that changed airflow and microclimates. See article on saltpeter mining in Pholeos journal.
Caves have been used for storage of almost everything through the years. In the 1880’s, entrepreneurs stored large quantities of onions in Wyandotte Cave in Indiana in a failed attempt to corner the market. The smell of onions endured in the cave for decades . Some barrels from this effort remain in the cave to this day.
Cave commercialization for tourism likely had more impact on most cave bat populations than previous human uses. Owners modified caves: enlarging passages to open new areas and installing doors and gates to control access. Alterations often changed the caves’ temperatures and made them less suitable for bats.
Caves of Mammoth Cave National Park are among the best known tourists caves in the U.S. This huge cave system is typical of caves that were attractive both to Indiana bats and to early cave explorers. Here's a picture of a tour group in the early 1900s.
In the early 1960's at least 100,000 Indiana Bats hibernated in Coach Cave in Kentucky, and then a resort and gift shop was built over the entrance to the cave. Indiana bats, which have a strong instinct to return to their hibernacula, could not gain access to the cave entrance when they returned in the fall. The population at the cave collapsed.
Wyandotte Cave in Indiana, which may have once supported more than a million Indiana bats, became a commercial tourist attraction in the 1850s. Tours and alterations continued for more than 100 years.  After construction of a stone wall near the cave entrance in the mid-1950s the population plummeted to as few as 500 bats.
In 1966 the Indiana Department of Natural Resources purchased Wyandotte Cave and the Endangered Species Protection Act was passed. Listing focused attention on the Indiana bat and the state began managing to reverse declines, including removing the stone wall. The Indiana bat population responded by increasing to 13,000 by 1991.
Work by the State of Indiana, the Service and conservation partners has paid off at Wyandotte Cave.  The cave now supports almost 57,000 Indiana bats, one of the three largest populations of the species.
White-nose syndrome, a disease devastating Indiana bats and other cave-hibernating bats, was confirmed in Wyandotte Cave in 2011. Wyandotte has become a major hub of WNS research, providing information that may help manage the disease. 
Current thinking is that the fungus that causes WNS was accidentally translocated from Europe to the U.S.. Although the fungus is widespread among bats in Europe, deaths of bats in Europe similar to those in North America have not been observed.
WNS was first detected in a popular tourist cave near Albany, New York, suggesting that the fungus that causes the disease may have been transported to the site by a person visiting the cave.
Why does the fungus that causes WNS kill bats in North America but not in Europe? Scientists aren’t sure but are studying the question. One theory is that bats in Europe may be resistant to the disease because they co-evolved with the fungus.
For many of us, celebrating the holidays is about making children’s dreams come true. For one young girl, her dream was to help the little brown bat and stop the spread of white-nose syndrome. Let’s hope she does become a bat biologist!
We know that WNS damages wings of affected bats, and this damage can be deadly. One encouraging finding is that if an infected bat survives hibernation, the wings may heal after the bat becomes active in the spring.
Scientists studying WNS have found that initial mortality has not been as high in the south-eastern states as in northeastern North America, perhaps due to different environmental conditions. Understanding how environmental conditions affect WNS mortality may help efforts to manage the disease.
On this day in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law. For 40 years, the ESA has been stabilizing populations of species at risk, preventing the extinction of many others, and conserving the habitats upon which they depend. See why the ESA is one of the most highly regarded conservation laws.
The White-Nose Syndrome Quilt Project provided an opportunity for people to express their passion and support for bats. Quilt blocks range from simple art made by young children to the intricate creations of master quilters. They all express a love of bats. Public display of the quilt has built awareness of the importance of bats and the serious threat to bats due to WNS.
Ernest Thompson Seton, wildlife author and illustrator, provided this description of a bat:  “He is the climax of creation in many things, highly developed in brain, marvelously keen in senses, clad in exquisite fur and equipped, above all, with the crowning glory of flight.”  Here is the full quote.
Indiana bats will celebrate the end of they year much as they did the beginning, snug in their quiet, dark, cold hibernacula.    You can see all the year’s facts right here. Here’s hoping that you have a happy …. and very batty …. New Year!
Last updated: December 5, 2016