Streaming videos of the colony, new website available online today
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With Halloween around the corner, it’s time to look out for those fabled creepy night-flyers, from ghosts and ghouls to blood-sucking bats. But don’t confuse fact with legend – bats are too busy eating insects to worry about sucking blood or getting tangled in your hair.
It’s no wonder these flying mammals have suffered centuries of misconceptions. Yet, bats have proven more intriguing than spooky when provided a home in an urban setting, as the University of Florida campus sees thousands of visitors to its stilted bat structures every year. UF has the world’s largest continuously occupied bat houses, located in a field across from Lake Alice on Museum Road, and for the first time beginning at 10 a.m. EDT today, the Florida Museum of Natural History will launch 24-hour streaming videos of the colony.
“Bats are often portrayed in movies as just sleeping all day, but that’s not the way they operate – if you have the opportunity to see them up close, they’re amazingly attractive animals, and they’re not as menacing as you might think,” said Florida Museum mammalogy curator David Reed. “They may have ugly faces, but they’re brightly colored and you don’t get to see that at night.”
Three bat-cams are installed in and around the structures, including one inside the bat house with tilt, pan and zoom capabilities controlled remotely by museum technicians. Internet users may access the streaming videos by visiting www.flmnh.ufl.edu/bats, where there are also facts about the colony, links to bat conservation organizations and daily sunset times.
“The bat-cams are really cool for an educational tool, for one thing,” Reed said. “Also, having that many bats in one concentrated area always gives opportunity for study.”
Combined, the structures currently house nearly 300,000 individuals and the vast majority are Brazilian free-tailed bats, Tadarida brasiliensis, a non-migratory, maternity colony that birth their young and dwell in the area year-round. The best time to observe the bats is when they exit the structures after sunset.
“In the winter here, the bats who are most eager to get out first will wake in the early afternoon and start warming up, doing laps up top before they exit,” Reed said. “And consequently, the exodus of the bats during winter is slower and over a longer period of time. But in the summer time, they can leave more en masse because they don’t have to warm up their muscles first.”
On weeknights, about 50 to 60 people observe the exodus, but on weekends, there may be between 150 and 200 spectators, said UF environmental health and safety pest management coordinator Ken Glover, who helped build the structures and implement the bat-cam project. With the streaming videos, hundreds of people may watch the colony at the same time, and researchers hope the accessibility will help dispel some of the common misconceptions about bats and educate viewers about their important ecological value.
“My feelings for bats have always been most appreciative – they’re non-game wildlife and they’re the world’s largest predators of night-flying insects,” Glover said. “So they’re one of our most reliable forms of natural pest control and they’re largely misunderstood because they come out at night and you only see them when they’re flying.”
The bat house was constructed in March 1991 to accommodate a bat colony that had inhabited the James G. Pressly Stadium at the track and Scott Linder Tennis Stadium on the north side of campus. The University Athletic Association supported its construction so the droppings (guano) and urine would be contained at a safe distance from humans. The alternative habitat was deemed a success when the structure was permanently occupied in 1995.
“A pest’s status is determined usually by its location, not species,” Glover said. “So a bat is considered a pest when it’s living in the wrong place, just as a house fly is a pest when it’s not living on a pile of manure.”
In August 2009, the weight of the bats combined with deterioration of some of the interior fins caused the inside of the bat house to collapse. It was renovated within a few months and construction of a second structure, the bat barn, began in March 2010.
“We incorporated some changes, such as a different roof style so there would be more room for the bats to fly inside,” Glover said. “We also better insulated it to keep it warmer and there are now between 20,000 and 30,000 bats living there.”
Although the unexpected collapse of the bat house’s internal structure killed about 100 of its inhabitants, the victims were preserved as specimens at the Florida Museum and helped kick-start a research project on biogeographical distribution of the species.
“Because we had specimens here, we started collecting specimens of the free-tail in the Bahamas and the DNA showed some were dramatically different from the ones in Florida, which tells us the Bahamas has a really interesting history in terms of this species.” Reed said.
“It’s a project that never would have started if not for the bat house.”
The videos are being made available during the “Year of the Bat,” a two-year, worldwide species awareness initiative whose founding partners include the United Nations Environment Programme, the Convention on Migratory Species and the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats.
“We’re happy to launch this project during the Year of the Bat,” said Beverly Sensbach, associate director of museum operations. “We felt the timing was appropriate, during this global effort to raise awareness about bats and bat conservation.”
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