Bat boxes on campus provide habitat for misunderstood but beneficial creatures

A bat boxView print quality image
One of the three bat boxes that can be found in Dunn's Woods. Photo by Eric Rudd

Walking around the Indiana University Bloomington campus, one can see many signs of Halloween -- people in costumes, pumpkins, students enjoying the fall weather -- but also one holiday symbol that might be overlooked: bats.

Dunn's Woods is home to three bat boxes. The Caving Club at IU donated three bat boxes in 2016 to the Bloomington Urban Woodlands Project, a local organization that restores and researches local woodlands, and connects them with the community. The goal was to promote ecosystem services and protect biodiversity. The project was funded by the club and aided by local businesses such as Black Lumber, which provided supplies, and Lennie's restaurant, which hosted a "dine and donate" event.

People building bat boxesView print quality image
Caving Club at IU members construct bat boxes using supplies donated by Black Lumber. Photo courtesy of Melissa Fitzpatrick

Three of the total 30 boxes constructed for the donation are in Dunn's Woods, the rest can be found with other Bloomington entities, such as the Parks and Recreation department. They were placed on campus because bats have many benefits for the woods' ecosystem, and the university.

    • Bats help keep IU one of the most beautiful campuses in the country by pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds. Bats, like other pollinators, enjoy drinking the nectar from native Indiana species such as wildflowers and subsequently distribute the pollen throughout campus. In many ways, bats are responsible for the beautiful wildflowers on campus each spring.
    • Bats eat bugs. In fact, every species of bat found in Indiana is an insectivore. Not only can they limit the pesky mosquito population, but one of their main food sources in Indiana is the rootworm, which damages crops such as corn. According to Bat Conservation International, bats are estimated to provide over $3.7 billion a year in reduced crop and landscaping damage. By reducing pests, bats keep the ecosystem in balance.
    • Bats protect biodiversity on campus. April McKay is the former president of the Caving Club at IU and a current bat biologist. She said the species in an environment are like its employees, and the bats here are "very well-employed." They're also known as a "keystone species" in caves. Without the ecological services bats provide, McKay said, IU might lack its current diverse ecosystems.

"There is the intrinsic philosophy that all life has a purpose for biodiversity," McKay said. "Biodiversity makes the world more robust."

April McKayView print quality image
April McKay working in the field in 2015.  Photo courtesy of IU Studios

Christopher Parks, an academic coordinator in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences'Department of Mathematics who served as faculty advisor for the caving club at the time, said that the donation was a mutual effort between the club, the university, and the community.

One of the biggest challenges the donation addressed at the time was the presence of bats in many of the older buildings on campus, and how to safely remove them.

"Because of the clubs connection to caves, we are eager to help bats," Parks said. "It is part of our conservation mission to protect caves and the animals that live in them."

In Indiana, as many as 13 bat species are found in the summer, which is their roosting season. This includes cave bats, such as the northern long-eared bat, as well as rare species, such as Rafinesque's big-eared bat. Each species is unique and provides different benefits depending on its ecosystem.

"People assume there are only two different species (in Indiana), and that they look like Halloween costumes," McKay said. "That is not the case."

Currently, bats face many threats to their existence, including diseases such as white nose syndrome, and habitat loss. Melissa Fitzpatrick, caving club president at the time of the donation and a graduate O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the boxes are essentially a home for bats in the summer to re-populate, and Bloomington is within the range of several federally protected species.

"One of the biggest struggles we're facing environmental-wise is the destruction of habitats in general, and one of the biggest ways to help is to provide habitats," Fitzpatrick said. "We were looking for a way for the club to give back, for the critters and for the people."

The boxes will be up for the foreseeable future, Fitzpatrick said. She also encourages students not lean on previous stigma or misconceptions about bats. Although people often react as if they'd seen a mouse, bats are actually not flying rodents but are genetically more closely related to an otter.

Another myth is that all bats are rabid. But only 6 percent of all bats brought in suspected of rabies each year are actually infected, according to the Center for Disease Control. If a bat is behaving abnormally, McKay said, don't handle it directly, but instead contact WildCare.

So this Halloween, don't just think of bats as a horror movie cliché, but remember the positives they provide IU. And keep a lookout for bat boxes the next time you're walking through Dunn's Woods.