Getting Lost with Bats

by | Oct 28, 2021 | Creative Nonfiction

GETTING LOST WITH BATS by Kira Smith

It was through the suggestion of a friend studying wildlife biology that I stumbled into a job with an environmental consulting company collecting data on endangered bat species in central Appalachia. Most of the company’s contracts were for environmental impact assessments for wind farms and public agencies like the forest service. It didn’t matter to the people who hired me that I was not a chiropterologist or even an early career biologist but was studying for my bachelor’s in human geography. For a single day I was trained on surveys and how to use a compass for triangulation using three known locations to identify a bat’s location and range. No one tells you in school that science is something you can learn on the job. The most important qualifications for being a bat catcher are a tolerance for solitude and the ability to live outdoors for three consecutive months. It paid a thrilling rate of a hundred dollars a day, more money than I could make in gas stations or grocery stores.

I worked as part of a team dispersed through several miles of forest, laboring occasionally in pairs, though mostly alone, across the mountains every night. An hour before dusk I sipped lukewarm coffee out of a tin cup, then set about compiling sets of metal piping, adding sections to make them taller while sweat trilled down my brow. When I was done, I affixed nets to each set of two poles until they resembled 20-foot volleyball nets with sheer black webs waving in the air. Our traps were set up in bat flyways, which include roads, streams, trails, and ponds. Bats are unable to detect the thin mist nets with their echolocation and become stuck by accidentally flying into them.

In the rosiness of sunset, I opened the nets and stepped into the woods to await the arrival of tittering bats who came to feast on beetles and the mosquitos that plagued me. A little brown bat can eat up to three thousand insects in a single night, an invaluable service to outdoor humans, farmers, and their fellow wildlife. I passed the time absorbed in the scent of earthen rot and reading books collected from small-town thrift stores we crossed on the road from one job to the next.

My first week in the Monongahela National Forest I huddled under a tarp with my flashlight poised over my favorite tale in Howard Fast’s science fiction collection, The Edge of Tomorrow, which features alien visitors to Earth shaped like two-foot-long ants. In the story, an American male narrator happens upon one of these creatures in a hunting cabin. He panics when he sees the giant insect-like body and slaughters it by bashing it with a golf club. “Whatever kind of a man I am, I react as a man does,” the narrator states, indicating that he perceives his reaction as universal. Then he brings the ant-like corpse to a prestigious scientific institution whose biologist reveals a collection of eight similarly slaughtered specimens. The scientists discover that each ant-creature carries a set of strange tools, suggesting a human-like intelligence. Furthermore, the scientists theorize that the creatures don’t have a concept of violence, and therefore never move to defend themselves from their human attackers. “Would you mind telling us why you killed it, Mr. Morgan?” the scientists ask the man.

I interrupted my reading every ten minutes to check my nets for captured bats and was often distraught to find collateral nighttime fauna caught in the webbing: beetles and endangered luna moths that fluttered faintly in my hand as I tried to free their papery wings from the net. These attempts were futile, my fingers too inept to save anything. Instead, I pulled out the thorax, then the wings, hoping to deal a swift death. I thought about Fast’s alien story often. It made me acutely aware that I killed one species in order to study another, an insect for a mammal, a pollinator for a predator.

For a stint I was joined in my work by two grey foxes who played each night, chirping at one another in a nearby muddy clearing, tumbling closer until they discovered that I was not only nonthreatening, but also uninteresting. Rarely, a human would happen upon my worksites in the early evening. The eastern part of West Virginia lies in the National Radio Quiet Zone, designated to stop interference to the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. Rural folks in this part of the country occasionally stopped to ask what brought me to the outskirts of their small town.

“Catching bats ya say? What are you gonna do with ‘em? Probably not good eatin,” flannelled strangers inquired, driving grumbling pick-ups to their hunting camps or joy riding four-wheelers down mountain paths, not unlike the ones surrounding my hometown, 150 miles north. Sometimes they asked if I would remove the bats that had settled in their attics.

I would shake my head. “Sorry, we don’t do animal control. You probably have a maternal colony, you can’t move ‘em until the pups are old enough to fly. State Law.”

Even though I wasn’t a person of authority, I let the last bit hang in the air with emphasis. The demonized image of the vampire bat and their unfortunate representation in horror movies has made life hard for bats. The violence visited upon them is always undue—the result of old fears and superstitions about the night.

For a week I had another human visitor who called from her bungalow upriver. She was an elderly local with a white bun and small spectacles. Each day she leaned on the railing of a nearby bridge, watching me work. “Do you have any bats down there I could see?” she asked. I wished that I did; it was a small ask in return for warm chocolate chips, especially when one is shivering in the Appalachian rain for weeks on end. But bats had become rare in this part of the country and my compass, intended for tracking them, sat underused in my pocket. Once, she brought a collection of delicate bat skulls and bones, lovingly framed and labeled in a shadow box. I knew that she was showing me something intimate, a tenderness for these creatures in a place that didn’t always welcome them.

I told my visitor stories of our work, about the foxes and the luna moths, the terrifying night call of the Eastern screech owl, but I could not bring myself to tell her why she found so many bones and not enough bats.

***

In the early days of my work setting mist nets to catch bats I learned that my compass couldn’t tell me where to go, it could only indicate the relationships among things. Say, the distance between mountains, or from my body to the river. When I got lost taking a piss in the woods, which happened more often than I want to admit, I was better off following the slope of the land or the pull of a river than the compass needle in my pocket.

Bats do not need folding compasses for orientation because inside their sensory cells they carry traces of magnetite, the only naturally charged mineral. Bats have a tool in their biology, though it has taken several hundred years for us to recognize it. They use the compass that is their body to navigate from their summer homes in regions of plenty to their hibernacula for the long sleep of hibernation. During this period of torpor, a state of slowed metabolism, a bat’s body temperature can drop to near freezing. The common little brown bat sometimes hibernates for over six months waiting for spring.

I first became acquainted with Pennsylvania’s little brown bats while standing in a field with my older sister. She demonstrated how to toss small, crumpled pieces of paper into the night sky to see the swooping shadows catch the papers out of the air. I remember that my white Michael Jordan basketball shoes glowed in the full moonlight and the aerial drama of flying mammals was cast in flitting shadows against a backdrop of stars. We spent much of our time harassing the local fauna; keeping jars of lightning bugs, buckets of red-spotted newts, soft Mallard ducklings clutched too tightly in our eager hands. We assumed that the ecological and social networks of our home were fixed, and therefore took them for granted. Surely, I would grow up to be the shortest player in the WNBA, live in my parent’s house, and watch bats fluttering around farmers’ fields indefinitely.

Eventually, I did move out of my parent’s house to attend a state university down the road. It was there, in the hedge outside my first college apartment, that I saw my first sick bat. She was crawling across the ground with her inept winged arms in the middle of the afternoon. I scooped her up with a t-shirt and placed her in a box to keep her safe from predators. I knew a retired vet who spent her time raising birds in incubator boxes and mending the broken legs of deer outside of town. My parents often brought injured wildlife to her practiced hands. When I called, she said in a sympathetic tone, “I’m sorry, I can’t take bats anymore.” I didn’t pay attention to the reason she gave, I just hung up in frustration. By the end of the day, I found the bat’s body curled and rigid. I coerced my friends into giving a burial and placed yellow daffodils over the mound of soil while they comforted me with soft pats on the back. I did not know at the time that in early March this bat should have been in torpor, sleeping away the last of the snow and frost. The cause of death was likely starvation.

***

The magnetic sensory cells of little brown bats that help them navigate from roosts to hibernacula are also a catalyst for their deaths. In 2008 the little brown bat was classified as a species of least concern by the Fish and Wildlife Service, sometimes considered a pest when roosting in warm, dark attics. Ten years later in 2018, the little brown bat was relisted as an endangered species. Around 7 million bats have died from white nose syndrome, spreading it through their bi-annual migrations along the Appalachian Mountains. The disease has also spread as far west as Oklahoma through migration and human carriers who enter caves with contaminated clothing.

No one can say with confidence where white-nose syndrome originated; scientists have found the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that causes white nose in Europe, but European bats appear to be immune to the illness. Pseudogymnoascus destructans can survive in caves without a host, but it spreads primarily through bats clustering together for warmth. When American bats contract white nose from the fungus, it tatters the thin skin on their wings, waking them up during hibernation when their bodies cannot produce enough energy to survive the cold. It itches them dreadfully, but their fingerbones evolved for flight, not scratching. When white nose infects a hibernaculum, it’s sometimes fatal to the entire colony, killing hundreds while they bundle together to sleep through the frigid mountain winters.

My coworkers tell me that they used to catch 30 bats a night when they first started working, but I never catch more than ten. When I do, I stare into their faces and they gnash their teeth at me. They close their beady eyes while keeping their mouths open, as if the sight of me is too frightening to bear. Their pounding heart quickens in my hand and it feels like their whole brown mass is a staccato. I try to comfort them. It’s going to be OK; I’m not going to eat you, but I imagine that my deep human voice sounds threatening. I stroke their heads with a single finger to calm them. In response, they clench their eyes tighter and open their maws further, showing me their needle-like incisors. I’m a vegetarian, I assure them, knowing that our history makes a true peace nearly impossible.

The Virginia big-eared bat has a dark brown face and a creased nose that suggests disdain. Its ears are a full third of its body length. When I catch one for the first time, standing hip deep in a disturbingly warm pool of water, I feel surprisingly somber at the sight of that face. There is something of a gremlin in her squashed nostrils that would be cute if she weren’t trying so hard to bite me. She listens intently, twitching her remarkable ears, as I radio my colleagues to prepare a transmitter. Then I sit on the swamp bank holding her in the moonlit forest, peepers croaking around us. The Virginia big-eared bat is thought to be one of the only hibernating bat species immune to white nose syndrome. However, it has been listed as federally endangered since 1979, not due to disease, but over-logging in eastern old growth forests where they live. Their deaths feel like calculated blow, a bat immune to catastrophic disease is pushed nearly to extinction by profiteers in their habitat.

We glue a transmitter with an antenna to her back and set her flapping away into the night. A small group splits up to follow the transmitter from the sinking of purple dusk until the rising of grey dawn. With compasses in hand, we read off the bat’s orientation every ten minutes. Sometimes she keeps a steady course and I read off the same coordinates all night, other times I spin in circles, listening to the heartbeat of my telemetry equipment and watching the needle on my compass swing drunkenly. We do this every night until the transmitter falls off and we can finally get some sleep.

Sometimes, I suspect we’ve caught the same bat over and over, following her through the woods for weeks in our misplaced attempts to save her. My grief feels insufficient for the magnitude of loss; for the bats and the luna moths and the networks of flora and fauna they anchor in the ecologies of our shared world. There aren’t enough daffodils to bury a whole species, let alone several. I watch the big eared bat fly away into the night, unknowingly carrying a beacon of her species. Despite all our data, I worry that she will become a fable we only encounter deep in the woods. An alien species in a science fiction story.

I fear that we will be lost without her.

 

 


 

Photo used under CC.

About The Author

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Kira Brooke Smith is a writer from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, currently living in Portland, Oregon with her cat Saturn. Her nonfiction works have been featured in Oregon Humanities, Cagibi, Plain China Anthology of the Best Undergraduate Writing, and elsewhere.