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Gems of Arkansas Series, Part IV: The Ozark Big-Eared Bat

an ozark big-eared bat hanging upside down on a cave wall
The Ozark Big-eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii ingens) is an endangered species that has suffered serious population declines. This individual was photographed in the Ozarks of Oklahoma, USA, 2014. Image credit: Dante Fenolio / Science Photo Library.

This blog series is inspired by the exhibition: Cross Pollination: Martin Johnson Heade, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Our Contemporary Moment. Inspired by the museum’s beloved collection of Martin Johnson Heade’s Gems of Brazil, this interdisciplinary exhibition draws connections and comparisons between artists who all share an intense appreciation for the systems of nature but present it from very different perspectives. From large paintings of vast landscapes to work that shows the miniscule details of shimmering wings, guests will undoubtedly draw connections between the “fragile web of relationships that sustain our environment.” It is in this spirit that we are pleased to present Gems of Arkansas, an environmental journey exploring the places, animals, and, of course, gems, that make Arkansas such a unique place.

 

Can something that is furry, flies at night, and has a terrible reputation as a blood-sucking monster be considered a “gem?” I contend that the answer is “yes,” especially after dispelling a few myths about these truly fascinating creatures. In this final blog of the Gems of Arkansas series, we’ll be delving into the wonders of our very own, endangered, Ozark big-eared bat.

First, however, let’s tackle some myths that have given all bats an undeservedly bad reputation:

  1. Bats turn into vampires. Nope, they don’t. As a matter of fact, there is some dispute as to where this legend originated, but the idea of vampires dates back to 4,000 BC where they are found in ancient Sumerian stories and Babylonian myths. Eventually, the legends of vampires made their way to early Slavic societies who thought that a bat flying over an unburied corpse could bring that corpse back to life in the form of a blood-sucking vampire. Creepy! Of course, perhaps no person has done more to promulgate this folklore than Bram Stoker, whose 1897 novel, Dracula, epitomizes the relationship between bats and the folklore of vampires.
  2. Bats want to bite you and then drink your blood. There are over 1,400 species of bats in the world. Of those, three actually feed on blood, with two specializing in birds. All three are found only in Central and South America. They are commonly called vampire bats but their preferred source for this gooey protein are birds, livestock, or other four-legged creatures. However, if you are camping out in vampire bat territory, I’d suggest protecting your extremities. Should you become a target (which is very rare), just know that the feeding is a rather dainty process. Vampire bats use their teeth to make a small incision in the skin of their meal and then proceed to gently lick the blood. They can only ingest one tablespoon of blood at a time, so if you are human, you’ll survive…but a rabies shot would be a good idea.

While the idea of bats turning into vampires makes for good storytelling, it’s really important to understand the vital role that bats play in keeping our ecosystem healthy.  One of the most significant services they provide to nature and humans is their ability to control populations of insects, especially obnoxious ones. For example, bats feed voraciously on mosquitoes, corn earworm moths, and cucumber beetles.  It’s been estimated that on an average night, a bat will eat the equivalent of its own body weight in insects and other arthropods.

A study published in 2011 in Science noted that insect consumption by bats saves the agriculture industry roughly $22.9 billion dollars per year in insecticide costs, not to mention the environmental “savings” from not having to spray. Coincidentally (or perhaps by nature’s design), since bats are nocturnal, they typically do not feed on beneficial insects like ladybugs and bees who love the sunshine.

Bats are also very effective at dispersing plant seeds and pollinating plants, playing a vital role in plant reproduction. This is especially true for night-blooming plants and for valuable food crops such as bananas, mangoes, and guavas. And while we may not be growing these crops here in Arkansas, our Ozark big-eared bat, placed on the Endangered Species List in 1979, plays an important role in our local ecosystem. Plus, this bat is adorable.

Measuring 3.5-4.5 inches long and weighing in at around 13 grams, the Ozark big-eared bat is unique to Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri.  These states are home to the bats’ preferred karst topography cave dwellings. The cave temperatures needed by these bats is very specific. Their hibernation caves must range between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit whereas maternity caves (where females give birth to their young) need to range between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. These bats live in caves year-round and are therefore very susceptible to disturbances in this habitat. Unfortunately, such disruptions often come in the form of humans exploring caves where the bats are hibernating. If bats are aroused during this time, their metabolic rates increase. A single instance of this can use up to 30 days of fat reserves (of which there is very little to spare) which can result in mortality. These disturbances are a main reason why the populations in Missouri are now gone, leaving Northwest Arkansas and Oklahoma as the last refuges for the Ozark big-eared bat.

But even here, they face massive challenges including predation by larger animals (including house cats) and a fungal disease, for which there is no known treatment, called white-nose syndrome. This disease has had a devastating effect on bat populations across the country. With an estimated count of only 2,000 Ozark big-eared bats left in the wild, it is imperative that their caves are protected. Thankfully, measures are being taken by various groups, including the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the US and Wildlife Service’s Arkansas Ecological Services Field Office, and volunteers with the Arkansas Wildlife Federation. As recently as August of 2021, this group began installing bat-friendly, steel gates at the entrances to roosting caves to prevent access inside these caves.

image of a man installing a steel gate in a bat cave to protect its entrance
A steel gate being installed to protect the entrance to a bat cave.

Measures like this will certainly help, but there are things that every landowner, homeowner, and explorer can do to help bat populations thrive:

  1. Do not enter caves where bats are known to roost or hibernate.
  2. Minimize or eliminate insecticidal spraying in your landscape—the bats need bugs to eat!
  3. Share your “home” with bats by installing bat houses in trees—you’ll be surprised at the natural mosquito and insect control that comes with this. The more houses you have, the more insect control you will get.
  4. Plant native plants in order to create a habitat for insects that the bats will eat.

Take these simple steps to invite this wondrous creature into your yard. You’ll be rewarded with a nightly “bat show” of aerodynamic maneuvers and an eco-friendly landscape.

 

Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist.

 

Read more from the Gems of Arkansas Series: 

Part I: Let’s Talk Diamonds

Part II: The Ozark Hellbender Salamander

Part III: The Tallgrass Prairies