Learn about the bats of Arkansas

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An Ozark big-eared bat
An Ozark big-eared bat

Bats are mammals. They have a vast range of species worldwide — there are over 1,000 species across the globe and this figure includes 16 species in Arkansas (of the 47 known species in the U.S).

Bats are a prime player in many legends and supernatural myths due to their aura of mystery. “When they are seen at dusk or at nighttime they appear like dark flying blobs,” said Phillip Jordan, wildlife biologist for the Southern Research Station of the  U.S. Forest Service in Hot Springs. “And some pictures and paintings of bats make them look vicious and angry with beady red eyes. Not many people have the opportunity to see these animals up close.”

There is a lot to learn about these mysterious and diverse creatures. For starters, not all bats use echolocation, some use other means like sense of sight, hearing or smell. The wingspan for these creatures also varies greatly and can be anywhere from 5 inches to over 5 feet. All bats in Arkansas are insectivores, meaning they only eat insects. Bats have a direct impact in nature. “Studies show that bats provide an economic benefit to humans by removing agricultural pests from the environment,” said Jordan. “Bats are estimated to provide monetary benefits of over $3.5 billion per year to farmers in North America.”

Where one can find bats varies depending on species. Two species of bats in Arkansas can be found in caves, meaning they spend their lives, from roosting to hibernation, in that environment. The only time they leave is to forage in the summer. One of these is the Ozark big-eared bat, which is federally listed as endangered. It can be found in two counties in Arkansas. The other is the gray bat, which is also endangered, though it can be found in more counties in the state. Blanchard Springs Caverns in Mountain View has a large population of this species of bat. 

However, what are some misunderstood aspects about these creatures? “That all bats live in caves,” said Jordan. “There are just as many bats in the woods as there are in the caves.”

Some species that live in the woods include the Eastern red bat, Seminole bat, hoary bat (the largest bat in the U.S.), and silver-haired bat ( which are found in Arkansas during the spring and fall). 

Then there are the bats that live in the swamps and bottomland hardwood forest. These include the Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, which can also be found in attics and abandoned buildings, and southeastern myotis, which can also be found in mines and caves. 

Some bats hibernate in caves in the winter and then roost in trees during the summer. These include the Indiana bat, Northern long-eared bat and little brown bat. 

And some bat species can be found in many other places, from roosting in dead leaves, to the hollows of trees, caves, or even on the side of buildings. These include the tricolored bat, evening bat, big brown bat, Eastern small-footed bat and Brazilian free-tailed bat. 

In Arkansas, people are most likely to see bats during specific times. “Typically, during summer, people can see bats at dusk at a body of water just above the horizon,” said Jordan.  “When bats wake up for the night to go find food, one of the first things they do is go for a drink of water. People can still see bats in the commercial caves like Blanchard Springs.”

The population of bats is currently at risk. “Bats are in trouble right now,” said Jordan. “White- nose syndrome, a disease that disturbs bats while they hibernate, is causing a dramatic decline of bats throughout the U.S and Canada. Caves on public property are closed, for the most part. Staying out of areas where bats may be hibernating could help with the recovery.”

Worldwide, bats encompass a large amount of diversity. “There are many different species that are colorful and have some pretty cool features like a wrinkled face or unnaturally big ears,” said Jordan. “Some bats eat fish and others drink nectar. The bat world is wonderfully diverse.”