‘They’re not scary’: Washington biologist says bats should be praised, not feared
Colin Tiernan / The journalist spokesperson
Why are bats a Halloween staple? Why is their silhouette, plastered on an inexpensive decoration, synonymous with fear? Why are they the only thing Bruce Wayne dreads?
Maybe it is because we are afraid of what we don’t understand and there is a lot that we don’t understand about bats.
“They’re not scary,” said Abby Tobin, bat biologist and white-nose syndrome coordinator at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They are so misunderstood.”
Tobin said she was drawn to bats in large part because they were little studied. She said the idea of researching mysterious species and helping answer some unanswered questions about their biology and ecology excites her.
In general, species biologists know best what they are easiest to study. This partly explains why so much about bat behavior remains unknown.
“It’s a really difficult animal to study,” Tobin said. “They are small and cryptic, they come out in the middle of the night.”
Biologists don’t know much about bats in general, but Evergreen State bats are particularly mysterious, Tobin said. Part of the job she does now is answering simple questions about Washington’s bats, such as “Where are they?” “
“We don’t have a ton of data to pinpoint exactly where in Washington,” she said. “We’re slowly trying to put this back together.”
Much of Tobin’s work focuses on white-nose syndrome, a disease that kills millions of bats and one of the biggest threats facing North American bats.
White-nose syndrome seems to have appeared in American bats in 2006. It is caused by a fungus that behaves well in cold and humid environments. Many species of bats hibernate in cold, damp caves, so they hang out precisely where the white-nosed fungus thrives.
The fungus penetrates through the bare skin of bats, often on their faces. This is called white-nose syndrome because infected bats appear to have white mold on their faces.
The immune system of bats is suppressed when they hibernate. They are not awake, so they cannot groom themselves and clean the fungus. Once the white muzzle has gained a foothold, it can begin to disrupt the physiological balances of bats. This can wake them up, causing them to burn off valuable energy, weakening them.
Many bats infected with white nose syndrome die of dehydration or starvation. The disease can also invade their wing tissues, causing tears.
Right now, white-nose syndrome is wreaking havoc mainly in bats in eastern America. In some species, the disease can wipe out 90% of a colony.
In 2016, biologists first discovered white-nose syndrome in Washington. This was unexpected, said Tobin, as the disease had not been detected before in western Oklahoma.
So far, white-nose syndrome doesn’t appear to be as devastating for western bats, and Tobin said it could be because western bats behave differently.
In the east, many bats hibernate in massive underground colonies. Washington bats don’t congregate as much in caves, Tobin said.
“They’re probably more scattered across the landscape; they use many types of perches,” Tobin said, noting that Washington bats are more likely to spend their winters in rock crevices, for example.
It’s also possible that Washington’s hibernating bats will wake up more frequently during the winter, Tobin said. Waking up more often could mean Washington bats groom themselves more frequently and keep the white-nosed fungus away.
“We’re still trying to fully understand, ‘Is the spread going to be slower? “Said Tobin.
Tobin said she thinks it’s generally irrational to fear bats. Leave them alone, she said. If you need to move one, don’t touch it directly.
It is true that most cases of human rabies in America come from bats. But an incredibly small percentage of bats have rabies – some estimates say around 0.1% – and only one in three Americans die from rabies each year. For comparison, about 30 Americans die each year after being struck by lightning.
Tobin said that when she talks to someone with chiroptophobia – a fear of bats – she tries to explain the biology of animals. She said she tries to paint them in a positive light and help people understand their vital role in the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest.
Bats are incredibly beneficial, Tobin said. They eat huge amounts of insects, including mosquitoes. If nocturnal aerial hunters were to disappear, it could harm the forestry and agricultural industries of the interior of the northwest, Tobin said.
“I think they should be respected,” she said. “People should realize that they have an important role in our ecosystem.”