New Braunfels Herald Zeitung (Newspaper) - March 27, 1996, New Braunfels, Texas
8 O Horizons '96, The Places We Call Home D Wednesday, March 27, 1996Holy guano. BatmanThose winged rodents are vital to places like Gotham CityBy THOMAS GODLEY
Clinging to the walls of a secluded cave just south of New Braunfels, a legion of furry-winged creatures prepares for its night-time vigilance over the Hill Country.
At the first hint of darkness, they begin their ritual flight into the surrounding countryside, searching for food and using a sophisticated radar sensory to hone in on their prey
The Bracken Caves, located in the southern region of Comal County, just below Cibolo Creek, are home to more than 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Their nightly emergence in the summertime offers one of the most spectacular sights in nature. Yet few people are privy to this magnificent spectacle. Currently, the privately-owned cave is reserved for scientific research, lf it were open to the public, the caves could do much to dispel misinformation. The countless myths — portrayals of bats as winged demons, monsters in Dracula movies and horrid stories of needles and rabies — have tarnished the creature’s image.
Ironically, the beleaguered bat is rarely a threat to humans, but a vital part of the ecosystem.
Slowly but surely, the much-maligned reputation as a nighttime nemesis and blood-drinker is turning to one of a wildlife wonder.
Through educational programs, the public — farmers in particular — are learning the benefits of having bats in nearby caves. Along with their important role in the pollination and seed dispersion in certain plant life, these voracious insect-eaters do plenty to decrease the need for pesticides.
While evidence is still being sought to determine the correlation between the specific diet of bats and the types of insects which feast on fanners’ crops, there’s no question that the Mexican free-tailed serves a key role in the Hill Country.
“We know they are important to keeping nature in balance by controls ling nighttime insect populations,” said Bob Benson, public information officer for Bat Conservation InternationalHe may not be much to look at, but without him and his millions of friends, we d be awash in pests like mosquitoes.
of ways. The group clears trails, cuts weeds, maintains fences and roads, just to name a few yearly projects. Bamberger believes the bats, with their steady diet of mosquitoes as well as moths, repay area residents in their own way.
“We estimate the bat colony at Bracken consumes about 250 tons of insects every night,” Bamberger said. “In dry times they can roam as far as IOO miles in search of food. They are very vital to the San Antonio and New Braunfels area. They make our backyard life more enjoyable.”
The caves arc also a source of bat guano (feces) which is extracted during the winter. The waste is mined for organic fertilizer and other uses. Scientists continue to look into utilizing guano’s high nitrogen content and countless forms of unique bacteria. The research could someday improve detergents, detoxify waste and create antibiotics, Benson said.
The caves in Bracken, while under the ownership of local ranchers, had long been a relatively safe haven for the bats. However, wildlife conservationists feared the possibility of irreparable damage being done by a single disaster or act of vandalism. Because the bats colonize in such vast numbers an iso
(BCI), an organization which purchased the Bracken Caves in 1992. “Without healthy bat populations the demand for chemical pesticides would likely increase. It would also jeopardize the entire ecosystem of plant and animal species, and could even have harmful effects on human economics.”
Studies are currently being done by researchers at Bracken and other caves in Texas and across the United States. Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadanda brasiliensis) are one of 44 North American species studied by Merlin D. Tuttle, who founded BCI and was instrumental in spreading information to save bats which were living in the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin — the largest urban bat colony in the world.
Jay David Bamberger, a trustee of BCI and volunteer caretaker at Bracken Caves, has been working with members of the Bexar Grotto, a San Anto-nio-based cave-explorer’s group committed to preservation efforts. Bamberger said the mission is to protect the cave from development in a variety
The Bracken bat cave is home to more than 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats.
The column of bats is so thick, it shows up on San Antonio television weather radar.
lated stroke of violence could wipe out a significant number. Combined with the threat of urbanization from residential development in San Antonio’s northern outskirts, the scenario led BCI to secure funds from a grant by
the Ewing Halsell Foundation.
The delicate nature of Bracken Caves is magnified further by its use as a bat nursery. Following winter in Mexico, the females migrate to Bracken and produce millions of young pups
whose mortality rate is crucial to the species’ survival. Bracken Cave shelters the largest-known bat maternity colony in the world.
The new owners have yet to make the caves open to the public. Benson said BCI is considering limited public access for tours. The difficulty lies in securing routes through privately-owned land on the perimeter of the cave site.
In the meantime, the caves are reserved for the bats and the exploration of researchers who continue gathering data that hopefully will reveal new information and dispel the myths.
Benson docs not downplay the potential dangers of bats coming in contact with humans, but he stresses a ‘look but don’t touch,’ rule of advice.
“People are gradually learning more about bats as more information is made readily available,” Benson said. “Part of the growing awareness is that people want to learn more about these so called scary animals. It’s ironic that they are also one of the most beneficial.”
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