When early explorers first ventured into the hills of Kentucky, they were amazed at the abundance of native wildlife. Golden eagles soared overhead; bobcats, red wolves and cougars roamed the land, and hundreds of aquatic species swam in the streams. Since that time, man has inhabited most of the state, taking over the habitat of many species and pushing some to extinction. As of today, Kentucky has 37 species on its endangered or threatened list, including three very interesting and misunderstood mammals: the gray bat, the Indiana bat and the Virginia big-eared bat.
The gray bat lives in most of the southeastern states in the U.S., specifically the ones that have karst terrain, or areas where you find caves. You can distinguish them from other bats by the solid gray fur on their backs. These bats live in caves year-round. During the winter, they hibernate in deep caves, and in the summer, they roost in caves that are found around rivers. They do not roost in houses or barns. Many of the caves where gray bats roosted have been flooded by reservoirs and the commercialization of caves has driven many of these bats away. One reason they are so endangered is because of their habit of living in very large numbers in only a few caves. This makes them very vulnerable. The gray bat was added to the U.S. List of Endangered Species in 1976, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed a recovery plan to help the gray bat survive.
The Indiana bat is small, at only two inches long and weighing seven to eight grams. They are grayish-brown in color, with a pinkish nose. They're generally found in packed clusters in caves and mines in most of the central part of the eastern United States. The most vulnerable time for the Indiana bat is during its hibernation and one of the largest causes of their population decline is from human disturbance. Each time they are awakened from hibernation by humans, they lose precious energy stores. If they are awakened too many times, they will die before spring. Indiana bats are also threatened by pesticide poisoning.
It is estimated that the total number of Indiana bats alive today is 400,000. Plans to help the species include keeping humans away from known places where they hibernate, and studies are being done on finding new wintering sites for these bats.
Virginia big-eared bats
One of my favorite bats is the Virginia big-eared bat. They are medium-sized bats, and they have the very distinct feature of very large ears, which are over an inch long. They live in caves and old mines, in isolated populations in southwestern Virginia, northwestern North Carolina, eastern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky; Kentucky's one major hibernation site is at Stillhouse Cave.
The last count of these bats was at around 18,000 bats; they, too, are threatened by human interference and pesticides. In October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Smithsonian Institute's National Zoo will be given a grant to place a permanent colony of Virginia big-eared bats at the zoo's Virginia-based Conservation and Research Center.
There is a new, devastating threat to bats that is taking its toll on many bat populations called the white-nose syndrome
. It was first found in Albany, N.Y., in 2006, when a caver discovered sick and dead bats with a strange white substance on their muzzles. Scientists soon discovered that it is caused by a deadly fungus, and it is killing bats all along its path as it travels south. Recently it has been spotted in West Virginia -- not good for bats in Kentucky.
Steve Wing, the general curator of the Louisville Zoo, discussed the endangered bats of Kentucky and the problems they face. You can view that video here
Bats, unfortunately, have a bad reputation -- but don't let the movies fool you. They are amazing animals crucial to many of the world's ecosystems. Without bats, the planet would be overrun with insects. Bats do not attack humans, and they do not turn into vampires. There is only one species of bat that drinks blood, and it lives in Mexico and Central and South America. Vampire bats generally feed off of blood from livestock, and don't take enough to cause any harm. Another misconception about bats is that they all have rabies, which is not true. Only about one-half of one percent of bats tested test positive for the virus. Bats aren't any more susceptible to this virus than any other mammal.
To learn more about bats, visit the Bat Conservation International website
. To keep track of the Endangered Species List, visit this site
Photos: (1) Gray bat/Adam Mann, (2) Indiana bat/USFWS, (3) Virginia big-eared bats/Craig Stihler, (4) White-nose syndrome on little brown bats/Al Hicks