Of all the decorations that people put up on Halloween, there is one that Jennifer Newmark, Wildlife Diversity Division chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), holds a special affinity towards. Newmark cannot get enough of the bat decorations, just not for the same reasons as most people.
“I know people put up bat decorations to be spooky and creepy,” said Newmark. “But when you learn the truth about bats, you realize how amazing and beautiful they really are. The one thing they are not, is scary.”
Newmark has spent a large part of her professional life explaining that not only is everything you thought about bats incorrect, but they are actually extremely important to the success of Nevada’s ecosystems.
“Bats get a bad reputation because they are active at night, they’re hard to see, are often very quiet, and therefore really mysterious,” said Newmark. “It’s easy to come up with scary thoughts about things that go bump in the dark, and unfortunately, a lot of people think of bats as that bump in the dark.”
In an effort to help bring awareness to all the good that bats do, NDOW has been taking part in Bat Week from Oct. 24-31. Bat Week is an annual, international celebration of the role of bats in nature organized by a team of representatives including Bat Conservation International, Organization for Bat Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service.
Newmark points to a handful of urban myths that have given bats a bad reputation including that bats are blind, they get stuck in your hair and that all bats drink blood.
“It’s actually kind of funny when you think about all of the misconceptions people have about bats,” said Newmark. “The reality is that bats play a pivotal role in almost every ecosystem. They quietly go about all night long eating insects and helping us get rid of pests. But because we don’t see them, we often don’t appreciate all that they really do for us.”
She points to several examples of the benefit that bats play around the world. In tropical systems, they are critical pollinators and seed dispersers. If you like bananas, mangoes, and tequila then you can thank bats as they are responsible for pollinating the plants that produce these products. Closer to home, bats in Nevada and much of North America are all insectivorous, meaning their diet consists of insects like moths, mosquitoes and even scorpions. Bats are the only night-time predators of insects, and without them, insect populations would grow catastrophically. Many of the insects that bats target are severe threats to crops and farmlands.
“A colony of 150 big brown bats can protect local farmers from up to 18 million or more rootworms each summer,” said Newmark. “There are 20 million free-tailed bats that live in Bracken Cave in Texas. Those bats eat 250 tons of insects each night. It is unimaginable what our world would be like if we didn’t have bats consuming these insects.”
Nevada is home to 23 species of bats, with some more commonly encountered than others. When it comes to managing the state’s bats, Newmark points to climate change as one area that NDOW is particularly concerned about. What effects will it have on bats and will they be able to adapt? How do climate change mitigation efforts effect bats – for example, as we shift to green energy such as wind generation, we know large numbers of bats can be killed. Working with industry partners, NDOW is developing methods to decrease the impacts to migrating bats from wind farms.
Because many of our bats roost in mines, NDOW works closely with the mining industry and other land managers to protect occupied abandoned mines. “We are deploying bat detectors in all kinds of habitats to better understand the species that occur there and the times of year they are there,” said Newmark. “We are also working with partners to put in place conservation measures to protect bats from human disturbance, habitat loss, and human development.”