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What it is like to go to the biggest bat home colony on the planet

The Mexican free-tailed bat (also known as the Brazilian free-tailed bat) is the most prevalent species in the UF colonyThe Mexican free-tailed bat (also called the Brazilian free-tailed bat) is essentially the most prevalent species within the UF colony — Photo courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History

With out bats, there’d be no tequila.

So, with Cinco de Mayo lower than a month away, you may think about toasting the world’s solely flying mammal on April 17, which is Nationwide Bat Appreciation Day.

You may also think about a visit to see these unbelievable creatures – roughly 500,000 of them! – as they emerge from the bat homes at Gainesville’s College of Florida, the biggest colony on the planet residing in purpose-built buildings.

Paul Ramey is the assistant director of promoting and public relations (and bat advocate, his e-mail signature states!) for the Florida Museum of Pure Historical past – additionally on the UF campus – and he fields numerous inquiries from native and out-of-state guests keen to observe the nightly present.

And what a present it’s.

Come nightfall, the sky deepens to a stunning lilac and as spectators collect past the fence line on the bat barn and homes – three 16 x 16 buildings, certainly one of which stays unoccupied (extra on that later) – and the night commute begins.

At first a trickle, errant bats emerge from beneath the roof traces, leathery wings flapping in that signature chaotic type so totally different from that of birds, and stream out to hunt bugs in flight. Some head straight for the onlookers. weaving flawlessly between them – generally inches away. It surprises and terrifies some, but it surely’s solely happenstance.

Bats, after all, will not be the bloodsuckers that lore has made them out to be – however they certain do love consuming them. The UF colony consumes 2,500 kilos of bugs each evening! And the gathering of people, respiration as they do, has drawn out scads of mosquitoes. The primary flyers to emerge are comfortable to grab these biting pests as they flit amid their very own human buffet.

“There isn’t a bat species that particularly targets mosquitoes,” Ramey explains, noting that the UF campus is hardly mosquito-free. “However all of our bats are insectivores…and assist cut back the numbers.”

Sleep well, night flyers; bats are designated by Florida Statutes Chapter 372 as "Non-Game Wildlife" and their habitat must not be disturbed by humansSleep properly, evening flyers; bats are designated by Florida Statutes Chapter 372 as “Non-Recreation Wildlife” and their habitat should not be disturbed by people — Photo courtesy of Kristen Grace/Florida Museum of Natural History

Followers of the bats, myself included, love the proximity to those delicate and oft misunderstood creatures of the evening, but it surely’s those that really feel in a different way we are able to thank for the bat homes within the first place. Again in 1987, when a campus constructing burned to the bottom, the displaced colony took up residence in different buildings, together with UF’s hallowed residence of the Gators.

Followers attending sporting occasions, together with then-Governor Bob Martinez, weren’t comfy sharing their house with the bats.

“They didn’t like with the ability to scent them or hear them, or being near them after they emerged within the night. And clearly, they didn’t like having the guano (that’s bat scat) dropping to the bottom.”

Involved events stepped in, and with extra funding from the close by Lubee Bat Conservancy and a few development donations, the UF Athletic Affiliation paid to have the primary bat home constructed.

And there it sat. Empty.

Seems, says Ramey, “you’ll be able to inform a bat the place to not stay, however not the place to stay.”

For 3-plus years, UF staff labored on excluding the bats from the stadium and different buildings.

“Ultimately,” says Ramey, “there have been fewer buildings the bats might entry and in 1995, the bats stayed [in the house] after having their pups and the colony continued to develop – and develop – and develop!”

The colony is usually made up of Mexican free-tailed bats, a really communal species that prefers residing in man-made buildings. A second construction, the primary barn, was in-built 2009 and occupied the next yr. In February 2017, the brand new bat barn was added – the unique 1991 home has primarily lived its lifespan – however the fickle bats haven’t but moved in.

In the foreground, the second bat house, built in 2010; the new one behind it is thus far vacant.Within the foreground, the second bat home, in-built 2010; the brand new one behind it’s so far vacant. — Photo courtesy of Kristen Grace/Florida Museum of Natural History

“The hope was that the bats would occupy the brand new construction that very same yr after which the unique construction may very well be taken down.”

UF staffers at the moment are in wait-and-see mode; there’s no timeline for eviction.

Though UF maintains the homes and manages the bat waste (prior to now, the guano – 4 55-gallon drums’ value – was given away month-to-month to farmers, who prize it as high-nitrogen fertilizer; it’s now utilized by the UF Area and Fork program for his or her gardens), the bats are 100 p.c wild.

And as they prey on the bugs, so, too, do they turn into prey. Among the many nightly guests are hawks, who try – principally unsuccessfully, the bats are actually distinctive acrobats – to snag a couple of as they emerge for feeding time.

“I’ve acquired calls from residents upset concerning the hawks, complaining that UF ought to ‘do one thing’ about them,” says Ramey. “Some folks say it’s merciless that we enable them to hold round.” However by way of public outreach and social media efforts, he notes, the complaints have declined considerably over the previous a number of years.

“The bats are wild and so are the hawks, and the hawks additionally should eat to outlive. It’s a part of nature.”

The hawks’ greatest success, Ramey factors out, comes throughout maternity season, when pups generally fall from the construction and the raptors are in a position to decide them off. The birds do up the drama issue come night time, although, with spectators gasping and cheering because the tiny flyers evade the feathered hunters.

Spring and early summer season, as the times enhance in size, are the most effective seasons for observing the emergence. They seem sooner after sundown, when twilight lingers longer. Like many Floridians, the bats are likely to grumble and keep in when temps dip beneath 65.

Ramey, who provides common outreach shows, has hassle protecting them to an hour when attendees start asking questions.

“From the bumblebee bat, that’s little greater than an inch lengthy and weighs about as a lot as a penny to the flying foxes, fruit bats that weigh greater than two kilos and have five-to-six-foot wingspans – the quantity of range in bats is astounding!”

In reality, bats are the most typical mammal in Florida.

“They play an vital function for us by saving the agriculture trade billions of yearly in diminished pesticide prices. And in different components of the world, they play a key function as pollinators.”

Which brings us again to Mexico, the place a number of bat species have co-evolved together with agave over 1000’s of years. They’re the plant’s main pollinator, answerable for its hardiness and variety.

With tequila excessive in demand, many business producers have turned to cloned agave, which is weak to illness and fungus. Some use chemical compounds that hurt the bats, a number of of that are already endangered.

So, in the event you can’t go to UF for Bat Appreciation Day, do the subsequent smartest thing: purchase a bottle of bat-friendly tequila (try the work of the Tequila Interchange Project) and lift a glass to those delicate little evening flyers.

¡Salud!


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