Expert: Don’t Give Bats a Bad Rap

By Mary Schuermann Kuhlman

INDIANAPOLIS – Halloween has given bats a bad rap, and bats’ reported connection to the origins of COVID-19 has certainly not helped. However, experts are trying to change that narrative. 

The last week of October is “Bat Week,” designated to celebrate the vital role of bats in nature. Joy O’Keefe – Assistant Professor and Wildlife Extension Specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – said most bats eat insect pests, protecting crops and forests. 

But she explained that bats face a number of threats, and are slow to recover when their populations are disturbed.

“Most of our species in Indiana are capable of living at least 10 years, and some have been documented at over 30 years,” said O’Keefe. “And they have low reproductive output and long lives, so they’re a lot more like us than they are like a rat or mouse.”

Habitat loss and deadly White Nose Syndrome have long been the biggest threats to bat survival. O’Keefe said it’s recently come to light that wind turbines are causing bat fatalities, although researchers and energy companies are monitoring the problem and examining ways to change that.

Experts are still disputing the role of bats in the spread of COVID-19 in China.

Some 13 bat species have been identified in Indiana, and the state has listed six as endangered. O’Keefe said one of the most common is the Big Brown Bat, which started living in buildings and houses after the deforestation of the early 1900s destroyed its habitat.

“As a result, they often are seen as a nuisance,” said O’Keefe. “People get colonies of bats building up in their house and it can seem kind of scary. But really, what is happening is that those bats are kind of making the best of a bad situation that we created a long time ago.”

She said if a single bat is discovered on a front porch, or tucked away somewhere else in a house, it will likely go away on its own. But if multiple bats have take up residence and don’t leave, she suggested reaching out to a state wildlife control operator.