A preferred roosting spot for bats in England are the belfries of medieval churches. Seems about right. These brooding historic structures are dark, quiet and appropriately atmospheric. And parishioners don’t seem to mind too much given that bats have long come with the territory. This otherwise harmonious coexistence becomes fraught, though, when the bathroom habits of church-dwelling bats result in major damage and interrupt services in a most unpleasant way.
A colony of rare bats in the coastal southwestern county of Devon, however, has eschewed churches altogether, opting for decidedly more unique lodgings: the belly of a massive fiberglass triceratops.
As reported by the BBC, the colony of lesser horseshoe bats — a fluffy and petite bat species with dwindling numbers in the U.K. but ranked as “least concern” on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species — was discovered taking up residence in the dinosaur replica by members of the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project. The project is an initiative of the Devon Wildlife Trust.
The bat-hosting triceratops is located at Combe Martin Wildlife & Dinosaur Park, a popular local attraction that’s one part run-of-the-mill zoo (wallabies, sea lions, primates and capybara are all top draws) and one part prehistoric theme park complete with a fossil museum and a bevy of life-sized and semi-terrifying animatronic reptiles lurking in the woods.
It’s not entirely clear why the bat colony picked the triceratops to call home, although it’s safe to assume that it provided the easiest point of entry and perhaps the most spacious interior.
“Bats will seek out safe and dry places they can rest up during the day before venturing out at night to look for food,” Ruth Testa of the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project explains in a news release published by the Devon Wildlife Trust, which oversees 40 nature reserves across the county. “The stomach of this dinosaur obviously fitted the bill.
“The surveys our volunteers undertake are giving us unique insight into how bats behave. With this knowledge we can then ensure that our landscapes become more bat-friendly in the future."
Testa calls the discovery of the bat-filled triceratops belly a big surprise. "When we arrived we didn’t know what species they would be and we could never have guessed where they would be living," she said.
"It shows how opportunistic bats can be, and that they'll take advantage of any opportunity," Testa tells the BBC. "So yes, it is encouraging to find them somewhere that's so well used and that has so many people passing by."
Endangered bats meet animatronic beasts
Staffers at Combe Martin Wildlife & Dinosaur Park have long been aware of bat colonies frequenting the lushly planted 28-acre complex that’s located just a quick drive inland from a seaside beach and resort area. However, bats living inside one of the park’s fearsome replicas was something new.
“It is fantastic to discover we have bats living in a triceratops, we always knew we had wild bats on site but never really knew where,” says senior primate keeper Louisa Bartlett. “The fact that they have decided to live in a dinosaur just makes it even more exciting.”
Bartlett goes on to explain that there’s plenty of available dinosaur real estate at the park in the event that the bats tire of or outgrow the triceratops, or if additional colonies decide to move in.
“We have 94,000 visitors every year and recently installed six brand new animatronic dinosaurs. You never know, one day the bats may decide to move residence into one of our new dinosaurs, if they feel like upgrading!”
Among the new additions mentioned by Bartlett are a brachiosaurus, stegosaurus and allosaurus. As for the triceratops — or whatever dino the bats may decide to populate in the future — park staff will ensure it remains undisturbed while the protected-by-law bats are in residence.
Growing love for bats in England
Listed as a priority species on the U.K. Biodiversity Action Plan, lesser horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus hipposideros) are classified as “native, rare and endangered” by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. With a population of roughly 15,000, lesser horseshoe bats can be found across Wales, southwestern England and some parts of western Ireland. Like their larger cousins, the even more rare greater horseshoe bat, the primary threats facing lesser horseshoe bats are roost destruction and starvation due to a scarcity of insects to munch on because of insecticide use.
Sporting mugs that only a mother could love, it's fair to say that horseshoe bats aren’t one of the more beloved critters in wildlife-rich Devon. The semi-feral ponies that graze Dartmoor, a sprawling moorland and national park in the south of the county, are arguably Devon’s most emblematic mammal. Still, thanks to the good work of the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project, appreciation and awareness of the bats, billed as “Devon’s nocturnal wonder,” is growing.
Dedicated to “ensuring the habitats needed are present, that our bat knowledge is better and that the people of Devon know about the species and so are better able to look after it,” the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project regularly hosts a variety of events including woodland management lectures, hedge-planting tutorials (hedges are a key habitat for the bats) and educational bat walks. September marks the annual Bat Festival, which kicks off with an evening bat-spotting swim at a public pool in the town of Buckfastleigh near Dartmoor National Park.