I write to you today in desperation. As a member of the Rocky Mountain bat community, I’ve grown up amid a swirl of unflattering stories about my kind. (I’ve never even met Dracula.) And now, research suggests the virus responsible for COVID-19 originated with our bat brothers and sisters. I can’t hang by as this news fuels the haters. Whether or not it’s true, the accusation shouldn’t blot out the good my species brings to Colorado—or overshadow the danger we face.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, bats save the country’s agricultural system as much as $53 billion a year. How? Our sonar deters many of the pests that would otherwise feast on your crops, and we try our best to eat the rest. Even our waste benefits humankind: The water in our urine helps hydrate sun- and rain-deprived areas of the Western Slope’s mountainous terrain, and our nutrient-packed guano works like fertilizer.
But that circle of life could stop spinning, says my pal Rick Adams, a bat ecologist at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. His studies have found that in hot, dry years, bats give birth to more males than females for some reason, and that trend has become the norm because of climate change. In 2007, as many as 80 percent of newborns on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains were dudes. And while it’s nice for a gal like me to have her pick of suitors, it’s not exactly ideal for continuing the species. Bats’ long life spans (20 years, on average) mean population impacts won’t appear for a while, but Adams says he expects to see fewer of us bats as the Earth continues to warm.
That’s why Adams’ work is so important. He’s been capturing, tagging, and releasing bats for decades (he netted me once; it scared the guano out of me, but it didn’t hurt). In 1995, he also started a Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) program called the Bat Counters, which recruits around 30 volunteers to pair up and take turns sitting outside roosting sites and watering holes at night to count how often we frequent the spots. The data from both projects help OSMP plan land management practices, such as putting up gates to prevent humans from poking around our caves. (Can you all stop doing that, please?)
In fact, scientists say humanity’s encroachment on our habitats could be why diseases jump from bats to people. So even if SARS-CoV-2 came from us, I think we can agree that Homo sapiens share some responsibility. I’m not writing to assign blame, though. Instead, I propose a truce: If you start protecting bat habitats and do something about climate change, we’ll keep munching on insects and fertilizing the mountains. After all, you’re not the only ones who love them.
*I know, I know—it’s a family name.