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We’ve Been Counting Bats in All the Wrong Places

But rock climbers are here to help.

A bat and a mountain.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

American bats have been having a rough time lately.

In 2006, a deadly disease called White-nose Syndrome appeared on the East Coast, dusting the faces of bats there with a white fungus that sapped their fat reserves while they hibernated over the winter, starving them before spring arrived. The widespread use of pesticides made things worse, as did the wind turbines springing up around the country: Bats seem to be worse at dodging them than the hawks and eagles that tend to grab the attention of conservationists, and nearly a million of them are killed by turbines each year. Some researchers think there may even be something on the turbines that attract the bats to them. Put together, it’s a trifecta of bad news.

When animals come under threat, conservationists will set about trying to assess just how bad the problem is. The easiest way to do this is by going to where the animals are: find their habitats and see how things are looking. For bat researchers, that has traditionally meant looking in trees and caves, which can house hundreds or even thousands of bats. There’s a reason, after all, why Batman has a bat cave.

Except that might not cover the extent of where they call home. About a decade ago, Rob Schorr, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University, noticed something odd happening online: Rock climbers were posting on their blogs about encountering bats while they were out climbing. The bats, it seemed, were living inside little cracks in the rock face — sometimes as small as just a few inches deep.

“This really made us sit up and think, what’s going on here?” Shawn Davis, an assistant professor in the Parks and Recreation department at Slippery Rock University and Schorr’s collaborator, told me. “It’s like if a species of bird was going extinct and suddenly we found a bunch of nests on cliff sides.”

The idea that bats were using these cracks and crevices was totally new to bat biologists, for a very simple reason: the only people who really run into these bats are rock climbers, and before the advent of the internet and the blogging boom there wasn’t really an open forum where scientists could hear about those encounters.

“We have no idea what the bats that live in these cracks are up to,” Davis said. “Do we have potential places where bats are not as susceptible to some of these major diseases that are wiping them out?”

White-nose Syndrome transmits through contact, and it spreads fast. So far, it has spread up and down the East Coast, and recently has been found on the West Coast as well — it seems to have skipped middle America, at least for now.

The contagiousness of White-nose means that caves, which tend to have hundreds or even thousands of bats in them at once, are the bat version of a rave at the height of COVID: just a few bats can quickly spread the disease to the entire cave. But cliffside cracks and crevices are much smaller than caves, which means each bat that lives in one is sharing space with only a handful of fellow bats. This is the bat equivalent of a pandemic bubble. There’s less socialization, which means fewer chances for bats to catch it and limiting the potential spread to just a handful of bats instead of hundreds.

Schorr and Davis wanted to find out how the bats that live in cliffside cracks are faring compared to their cave-dwelling brethren. But first they had to find out where those bats were to begin with. So they decided to turn to the community that alerted them to the bats in the first place: rock climbers.

“Most biologists don’t really have the skills to access these habitats,” said Davis, who has himself been climbing for more than 25 years, “But we figured maybe we can partner with climbers so they let us know when they’re seeing these bats out there.”

They launched a citizen-science initiative called Climbers for Bat Conservation, which has a simple premise: If a climber sees a bat on a climb, they can submit a sighting on the project’s website with information about the route they were on, how big the crack was, and how many bats they saw or heard. So far they’ve received more than 270 reports from across the country, including one report of long-eared bats living inside a crack — a first for the endangered species, which could potentially mean increased protections in an area where the bat previously wasn’t even known to live.

Tapping into climbers is both easier and more cost-effective than, say, using technology like drones — which is something that others have tried before. Many of these cracks are small, or they turn sharply around a flake of rock a little beyond the surface of a cliff, and drones can’t get close enough to the rock face to see those details.

There’s a side benefit to finding out where these bats live, too: Bats can carry diseases like rabies, and a bite from a bat, even if it doesn’t carry rabies, means a climber would have to get a preventative rabies shot just in case — which is both difficult and costly.

“So it’s not just about how we can protect the bats, it’s also about how we can protect the climbers,” Davis said. Perhaps, he suggested, the data can be integrated into climb-planning websites to give climbers a warning if a bat has been spotted along the route. “So instead of just jumping right into it, you might be a little more cautious,” he said.

Bats for climber conservation, I joked.

“Exactly,” Davis said. “Perhaps we need to start a new organization.”

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Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

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