Working in a bustling metropolis like Washington, DC leaves relatively few opportunities to see some of the world’s rarest and most fascinating creatures. But on Wednesday, May 16th the U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted a diverse audience, ranging from Hill staff to elementary school students, who were treated to a close-up view of an equally diverse group of bats—from microbats (like the ironically named big brown bat) to the largest bat in the world, the Malayan flying fox.
BatsLIVE! is a free education program that aims to increase awareness of the importance of bats to healthy ecosystems and agriculture, and measures that are needed to ensure their continued existence. One bat, for instance, can eat around 1 million insects a year—an immense benefit to farmers who must otherwise combat crop-killing insects with increased pesticide use. However, bats globally are facing enormous threats, including loss of habitat, pollution, human-caused mortality, and wind turbines. White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has decimated bat populations in the northeastern U.S. and Canada since its introduction to a New York cave in 2006 on a caver’s boots, has emerged as one of the primary threats to hibernating bat species across North America.
Several experts were on hand to convey not only the grim reality facing bats, but also to inform the public of how government agencies and non-profit organizations are teaming up to combat these threats. Of those who presented, the most popular was Rob Mies, Executive Director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. To be fair, he had a distinct advantage in capturing the audience’s attention—live bats! One by one, the bats were brought out, hanging upside down on Mies’ gloved hand. The audience is noticeably awestruck by the sheer range in size and appearance of the bats, and incredible features of each (bats are the only mammal in the world that can fly).
Presentations like this are not only fun for the audience, but also vital to spreading knowledge and advancing the dialogue in communities as well as the halls of Congress about the need to take action at the local and national levels by supporting and funding necessary research and response efforts to conserve bats and the vast services they provide to us all.