/ Modified jul 12, 2011 7:03 p.m.

Befriending the Bats Among Us

Historically maligned creatures gaining respect through education

Bats in tucson 617x347 Thousands of migratory bats reside under Tucson bridges during the summer months.

This year has been designated the International Year of the Bat. The goal of the effort is to bring attention to the vital role that bats play in ecosystems around the world, and to counteract the misconceptions associated with these creatures.

Conservation biologist Karen Krebbs works in wildlife biology and management at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, where she conducts research on bats.

She says bats have historically been misunderstood, in part because they are difficult to observe. But she says the negative stigma that bats have is misguided, and has fueled many myths.

“They’re not going to get in your hair,” Krebbs says in response to a common fear that people have of the world’s only flying mammal. “If they’re flying around your head it’s because they are catching insects. And it’s a good thing we have them because they are the major predator of night-flying insects.”

Krebbs has dedicated more than 25 years to the study of bats, and she points out these creatures actually contribute in many ways to the health of our environment.

“In Arizona we have 28 species,” Krebbs says. “Twenty-six are insectivorous, and two are the nectar-pollinating bats.”

Krebbs says one of the Arizona pollinating bats is endangered, putting in jeopardy the population of columnar cacti that depend on it for propagation.

Krebbs says that people tend to fear bats because they do not really understand them.

“That’s what we want to do with the International Year of the Bat: try to educate people and take away some of the myth and get people interested in bats,” she says.

Yar Petryszyn is another scientist intimately familiar with the unique habits of bats. As the former curator of mammal collections at the University of Arizona, he spent many years researching the various species of bats that make their home in Arizona.

Standing under the Campbell Avenue Bridge at the Rillito River, a location that is home to a maternity colony of 20,000 Mexican free-tailed bats, Petryszyn describes the unique namesake characteristic of the species.

“They’re called Mexican free-tailed because part of the tail protrudes beyond the membrane,” he says.

Petryszyn points out these bats typically migrate to the area from Mexico in April, and leave in mid to late September, when the Campbell-Rillito colony will number 40,000 bats.

Petryszyn says these creatures of the night may have gotten a bad reputation because of their unique lifestyle, but if you take a moment to look closely it’s easy to see they are an essential component of our fragile ecosystems.

Krebbs says the purpose for designating an International Year of the Bat is education.

“[It’s about creating] awareness, and bringing attention to the importance of bats,” she says. “They’re part of the environment, the ecosystem, and we definitely need them –they’re good guys.”

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