It’s Bat Appreciation Day! To celebrate, we’re sharing a special excerpt from the newly released Mammoth Cave Curiosities: A Guide to Rockphobia, Dating, Saber-toothed Cats, and Other Subterranean Marvels by author and cave guide Colleen O’Connor Olson.
In this charming book, Colleen O’Connor Olson takes readers on a tour through a labyrinth of topics concerning the earth’s longest known cave system. She discusses scientific subjects such as the fossils of prehistoric animals and the secret lives of subterranean critters, and she provides essential information on dating in the cave (the age of rocks and artifacts, not courtship). Olson also explores Mammoth Cave’s rich history, covering its use as the world’s first tuberculosis sanatorium as well as its operation as a saltpeter mine during the War of 1812, and shares the inspirational story of the park’s first female ranger.
Throughout, Olson offers up humorous accounts of celebrity visits and astounding adventures and even includes a chapter dedicated to jokes told in the cave over the years. Whether you’re visiting the national park, thinking about visiting, or just curious about a place recognized as one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, don’t miss this delightful guide to the wild and wonderful subterranean world of Mammoth Cave.
In this excerpt from Mammoth Cave Curiosities, Olson shares general bat facts, and information about the furry fliers of Mammoth Cave:
Flying Residents: Bats
About one thousand different species of bats in many genera and families make up the order Chiroptera, which means “hand wing.” Chiroptera has two suborders, Megachiroptera (megabats) and Microchiroptera (microbats). Megabats tend to be bigger than the microbats. All American bats are microbats.
Prior to white-nose syndrome, biologists estimated that two thousand to three thousand bats lived in Mammoth Cave. That’s not many bats for such a long cave, but in the past the cave was a very large bat hibernaculum. Dr. Merlin Tuttle of Bat Conservation International looked at bat stain—dark stains on the limestone where bats hung, similar to the polish where many people touch rocks—in Little Bat Avenue and Rafinesque Hall in 1997 and estimated that as many as nine to thirteen million bats hibernated there in the past.
Bats also live in other caves, trees, and structures in the park.
Contrary to the old saying “blind as a bat,” bats can see. But on dark nights and in caves, they rely on echolocation (sonar) to navigate. In echolocation, a bat uses its mouth or nose to make high-frequency sounds that humans can’t hear. If the sound hits something, it echoes back to the bat. The bat can tell the distance, size, shape, texture, and speed of the object based on the echo and thus can avoid it or eat it.
All microbats have echolocation, but, with a couple exceptions, megabats do not.
Gray bats hanging out
How Bats Know When It’s Night
Most animals know day from night by the sun. Many bats live in trees or buildings in the summer, so they can see the sun go down, but in the cave it looks like night all the time, so how do cave bats know when it’s dark outside?
Several things may cue the bats that it’s time to get up. The previous night’s meal of insects is digested, tummies are empty, so hungry bats wake up.
Perhaps bats wake up when they’ve had enough sleep. The length of days changes from spring to fall, but bats adjust as nights get shorter or longer.
Colonial bats may rely on social cues. Some bats roost near enough to entrances to see it getting dark. Bats farther back in the cave may hear the entrance-dwelling bats flying or vocalizing, which signals them to get up for dinner. The tricolored bats frequently seen in Mammoth Cave roost solo, so this method probably doesn’t work for them.
Colleen O’Connor Olson has been guiding tours at Mammoth Cave National Park for over twenty years. She is the author of Scary Stories of Mammoth Cave, Nine Miles to Mammoth Cave: The Story of the Mammoth Cave Railroad, Mammoth Cave by Lantern Light, and Prehistoric Cavers of Mammoth Cave.
Purchase her latest book here.