University of Florida Today
National Alumni Association Magazine
Volume 22, Number 3, pages 18-22
September 1997

Bat Watching
By Cindy Spence

     Oh ye of little faith, where are you now? Who amongst you will stand up and boldly say you never believed the bat house would work, would never house anything more than cockroaches and wasps and certainly not a world-class bat colony? Where are you, now that it is routine for 100 people or more to show up at dusk, night after night, to watch some 60,000 bats begin their evening flight? Invisible is more likely, for now almost everyone loves the bat house and the bats it shelters. The gabled, gray house on 20-foot pylons has become a bona fide tourist attraction and a University of Florida landmark.

      The UF bat house is home to the world's largest colony of bats - Brazilian free-tailed and Southeastern bats - living in a structure made especially for bats. As bat conservation becomes more popular, it is becoming a model for other houses like it.

      The formerly disparaged bat lovers, who nurtured the idea and the bats have become wise men and women in bat circles, sought after for their forward thinking and bat expertise.

      But it wasn't always so.

What's That Smell?

      Bats have always loved the UF campus, said campus pest control manager Ken Glover. They made homes in almost all the old buildings and had a particular fondness for drafty old Johnson Hall. On the night of Dec. 6 1987, they left on a routine flight and returned to find Johnson Hall burned and their home gone.

      They hastily took up residence in the track, tennis and baseball stadiums. Shortly afterward, then-governor Bob Martinez attended a track meet and reportedly asked a companion, "What's that smell?"

      The smell was guano, or bat feces. It's harmless, but hardly odorless. UF's Assistant Athletic Director Danny Sheldon knew he was in a bind. For the comfort of Gator fans, the bats would have to be removed. But as a protected species, the bats would require a different approach. The University Athletic Association put out a call for help.

      Jackie Belwood, an entomology doctoral student, answered. What she proposed - a giant and expensive bat house - drew long silent stares and then a barrage of questions, among them, could she guarantee the bats would use it? She could not.

     "I don't think they knew what to think of the idea," says Belwood, now a research associate at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science. "When I was waiting to give my presentation, I said to myself, If this thing flies I'll be very surprised.' And they were skeptical at first. But you know, they never made fun of it."

      Unbeknownst to Belwood, Sheldon might have been predisposed to hear her out.

     "I used to enjoy going to the track stadium and watching the bats fly out of there. They'd drop down and get within five or six feet of you and then their sonar would kick in and they'd fly off," Sheldon said. "It was quite a sight."

      Sheldon said Belwood was up front with UAA officials from the start.

     "She told us, No one's ever successfully built a bat house this large before but no one is saying it's not possible,' "Sheldon recalled. "Fortunately, we took the chance - and it was a chance - but we felt it was worthwhile."

      Sheldon said UAA officials feared the bats might get into the football stadium, hardly a hospitable roost on fall football Saturdays, but bat heaven otherwise.

      So in 1991, the UAA put up $20,000 to build the house and another $10,000 to have the bats humanely trapped and relocated. Some stayed a day, some two, but by the end of the first week the bats were all gone.

      In the three years the house stood vacant, it served as a hard-to-miss reminder of the gamble. Sheldon said the UAA took a bit of heat.

     "We got ribbed a lot. People would say, Hey, nice project.' But I'm an eternal optimist, I never felt like we made a mistake. I just kept thinking it was a matter of time."

I Told You So

      Belwood earned her doctorate from UF and moved on, but kept tabs on the house. It attracted enough bats every January to raise hopes that they would stay but the bats always deserted by April 15. For three years, by tax day, Belwood got a call from UF saying the bats were gone.

      Then in 1994, the population increased from four or five in January and February to more than 200 in April. The next year, the bats, en masse, had finally moved in.

     "Bats will do their own thing," Belwood said after hearing the good news. "They moved in when they wanted to."

      More good news was in store. As "Batman Forever" hit movie theaters that summer, the bats began having babies. Like baby boomers eschewing the Bohemian lifestyle, the bats settled down and established a maternity colony, a sign that they meant to make their on-campus housing a permanent home, said wildlife ecologist Bill Kern, of UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

      Kern was involved in the bat house from the beginning and now everyone turns to him for the official bat count. The house has room for up to 250,000 bats and he estimates 60,000 have moved in.

     "The increase in population has exceeded reproduction and we've had no complaints from other campus buildings since it was occupied. So we know, instead of going building to building, they are coming here," Kern said. "By providing them some place they can go, we've solved the problem of nuisance bats on campus."

The Bat's Benefactor

      UF alumnus George Marks got interested in bats in 1990 and followed the development of the bat house closely. In 1994, he and his wife formed the Florida Bat Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to education about bats.

      Marks, an electrical engineer, first was interested in echolocation - how bats call out and catch the returning echo from an insect. But, he began to realize that most common beliefs about bats are wrong. He thought the bat house would make a perfect vehicle for educating the public about the species.

      He donated $2,000 to set up a viewing area that was built near the bat house in 1996 and a kiosk to be constructed in the future. The kiosk would include educational information, photographs, and sunset schedules so visitors would know when to arrive to watch the bats fly.

      Conservation of bats has been difficult in the past because of their bad - but undeserved - reputation, Kern said.

     "People still think bats will swoop down and attack them for no reason," Kern said. "Usually what happens is someone is just walking around and coins are rattling or keys are jingling and some of these sounds are ultrasonic, so a bat will just swoop down to investigate and people will think they're being attacked. For their size, bats are very inquisitive."

      Bats are the slowest-reproducing mammals for their size and give birth to only one pup per year, making them susceptible to natural disasters and habitat destruction. Humans also have limited bat habitats by building better buildings. This makes habitats like the bat house all the more important, Kern said.

     "It used to be fairly common to go into any little town and find bats in attics or in churches or other buildings," Kern said. "But as people do a better job of constructing buildings there are fewer and fewer places for bats to roost."

      And there are real benefits to having bats around. They can eat their weight in night-flying insects, making them a valuable - and natural - component of campus pest control.

     "It's interesting how much we don't know about bats and how much we do know is incorrect," Marks said. "So the popularity of the bat house gives it a major, emerging role in education about bats."

A Research Opportunity

      As word of the bat house has traveled, prominent researchers have begun to view it as a tool for expanding the little that is known about bats.

      Bat biologist Thomas Kunz, director of Boston University's Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, travels frequently to Gainesville and has given some thought to ways to study the smallest mammals.

      As word of the bat house has traveled, prominent researchers have begun to view it as a tool for expanding the little that is known about bats.

      Bat biologist Thomas Kunz, director of Boston University's Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, travels frequently to Gainesville and has given some thought to ways to study the smallest mammals.

      At a recent meeting of the Gainesville Bat Society - a group formed by Glover, Kern and others interested in bats - Kunz suggested a dietary study, so a comparison can be made between the migratory bats of Texas and UF's bats - which do not migrate. Kunz' studies of migratory bats have shown that 50 percent of their diet is fat.

     "No one has studied the diet of the bats in Florida and since these bats don't migrate, it would be interesting to see the fat make up of their diet," Kunz said. "Of course, if you fly eight hours a night you can eat anything you want."

      Kunz is a consultant for the Lubee Foundation, a 120-acre bat conservation and research center north of Gainesville. Foundation Director John Seyjagat agrees with Kunz's assessment of the research potential of the bat house.

      The foundation's research focuses on Old World fruit bats, which play an important role in maintaining the diversity of tropical forests by dispersing seeds, and Seyjagat travels internationally working with these bats. But, he said, he continues to be awed by the flight of the bats from the UF bat house.

     "On any given night, you'll see people out there for four or five hours. They'll pack a picnic and watch the gators at Lake Alice and then before they go home, they'll cross the street and watch the bats," said Seyjagat, who is also a member of the Gainesville Bat Society. "It's a good, family activity and it's becoming part of the heritage of Gainesville."

Imitation: A Sign of Success

      Even before it was occupied, UF's bat house drew attention from Auburn University, which was having a similar campus problem with bats roosting in the administration building, historic Samford Hall.

      When the time came to put a new roof on the building, Auburn officials knew they would need to do something with the bats.

     "We followed your situation very closely, since this hadn't been tried before," said Mark Kiser, then a graduate student at Auburn and now the coordinator of the North American Bat House Research Project at Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas. "We looked at the UF bat house and decided to try it.

     "An Auburn architect took pictures of the UF house, which had been up for over a year, and we thought we knew what was wrong with it and changed the plans a little," Kiser said. "It turned out nothing was wrong with the UF bat house and the changes in the plans may have kept the house from becoming occupied at Auburn."

      UF's bat house has tall, closely spaced fins, vertical sections that allow the bats to nestle tightly together, as they like to do. Auburn used fewer fins and made them shallow, Kiser said, not realizing that would turn out to be a mistake. Kiser said the Auburn house was also built in filtered shade, before anyone realized the bats preferred sunny locations.

      Next up will be a new bat house in Tallahassee. The Twilight Group, a graphic art and design firm by day and a bat conservation group by night, is leading the effort to raise funds for the house. The group has helped relocate bats as they've been excluded from buildings and hopes the Tallahassee house will become as successful as UF's.

      If nothing else, the bat house is a testament to faith. As avid as Ray Kinsella in the movie "Field of Dreams," UF's bat lovers always believed "If you build it, they will come."

      While the bat house has thrived in its location, its future may not be sure. Every so often proposals crop up to build on the land where the house stands. UF and national bat experts say moving the house would cause the bats to flee and suggest building another house nearby years in advance of any construction at the current site. That would give the bats a chance to adapt to a new home before their old home is taken away. The current UF Master Plan has the bat house site slated for housing facilities within the next 10 years.

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