Photos by ERICH SCHLEGEL/DMN
University of Tennessee graduate student Noa Davidai (left) and professor Gary McCracken watch freetail bats emerge from the Frio Cave near Uvalde, Texas. They study the range and value of bats, such as insect control for farmers. And ‘fecal rain’? That enriches soil, Dr. McCracken says. (Dallas Morning News, July 9, 2007, p. 1)
It’s easy to understand. Look at the on-line Dictionary.com definition of the Mexican free-tailed bat, for example:
Mexican free-tailed bat
any of several small, insect-eating bats of the genus Tadarida, of Mexico and the southwestern U.S., inhabiting limestone caves: residual DDT has reduced most populations.
Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.
Was that difficult? It’s right there in the definition of the animal: DDT kills bats.
Bats eat mosquitoes, those things that carry malaria and other diseases. A Mexican free-tailed bat eats about 70% of its body weight in mosquitoes, every night.
This morning’s Dallas Morning News has a front page story, with great photo, on the value of bats in Texas, “Taking bats to the bank.”
Researchers have long known that bats in Texas caves dine on insect pests. But just how many bats there are and the value of their feeding had proved elusive until a five-year, $2.4 million National Science Foundation study by scientists from Boston University, the University of Tennessee, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Parks and Wildlife.
From sundown to sunup, the freetail bats consume a staggering 400 metric tons of insects a year in the Winter Garden, or 2 million pounds each night. They range over a radius of 75 miles and feed from ground level to 10,000 feet.
The bats help save $1.7 million annually by preventing crop damage and additional pesticide use in the eight-county Winter Garden, which produces $6 million in cotton each year, according to the report by the Boston University team.
“Most people think of bats as ugly or vile, but there is a real value they provide humankind,” said principal investigator Tom Kunz of Boston University. “The bats are a literal shield for this crop region. But until this project, no one developed a means to measure the specific economic value of bats to agriculture.”
From my experience with agriculture, that $1.7 million figure looks low, way low. Scientific studies like this tend to be very conservative, though, so we can say with great confidence that this is a floor figure.
Studies have shown that the pesticide DDT often used by farmers in the 1950s and 1960s may also have led to the depletion of large numbers of Mexican free-tailed bats (Clark).The Carlsbad Caverns colony decreased steadily in size from nearly 20 million down to only a couple hundred thousand during the 1960s due to DDT use (Wilson 110).A study in 1974 documented levels of the toxin in fat stores the bats would accumulate before migration, and found that when those fat stores were metabolized during the long flight, DDT levels were high enough to kill many of the bats (Wilson 110).In addition, DDT ingested by mother bats was passed along to their young causing most of them to die before reaching maturity (Wilson 110).Clark’s follow up study in 2001 also showed levels of DDT in bat specimens from the 1950s and 1960s to be considerably higher than in specimens from later decades (Clark).These kinds of toxin levels would account for the dramatic decrease in the Carlsbad bat population.
- Clark Jr, D R, “DDT and the Decline of Free-Tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) at Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico.” Archives of environmental contamination andtoxicology,40 (2001):537.
- Wilson, Don E.Bats in Question:The Smithsonian Answer Book.Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press
All of this adds up to a conclusion that critics of Rachel Carson who make the wild claims that DDT is harmless, and that but for DDT mosquito control would have been achieved, and therefore malaria would be wiped out do not have a clue what they are talking about, and probably have some skullduggery in mind when they go after Rachel Carson. Ironically, overuse of DDT actually benefits mosquitoes in the U.S., killing the predators of mosquitoes and other crop and human pests, allowing the mosquitoes to breed and feed uninhibited.
In her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson had noted a pesticide spill in Austin, Texas, which occurred in 1961 and virtually cleaned out all the fish in the Colorado River downstream — fish, of course, prey on mosquito larvae. DDT use in Texas, therefore, hammers mosquito abatement possibilities at both ends.
You may want to take your kids out to see bats in Texas, a worthwhile evening’s activity for anyone with school-age kids in Texas schools, for biology, geography and history reinforcement. The list below is cribbed from the Dallas Morning News:
1. Bamberger Ranch Preserve: about seven miles south of Johnson City; the world’s first and only man-made bat cave. Tours offered Friday evenings, June through September; reservations must be made in advance; 830-868-2630 or http://www.bambergerranch.org
2. Bracken Cave and Nature Reserve: on the northern outskirts of San Antonio; the world’s largest bat colony. Owned by Bat Conservation International and open only to its members; http://www.batcon.org
3. Clarity Tunnel: on the trailway of Caprock Canyons State Park, southeast of Amarillo; an abandoned railroad tunnel. Tours offered Friday evenings, June through September; 806-455-1140 or 806-455-1492
4. Congress Avenue Bridge: downtown Austin; the world’s largest urban bat colony. Reservations are not needed for free viewing, boat viewing is offered nightly, March through October; 512-416-5700, category 3636 or http://www.batcon.org
5. Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area: north of Rocksprings on U.S. Highway 377. Visitors Center open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day April through October, closed Mondays November through March; reservations must be made in advance; 830-683-2287 or http://www.devilssinkholetx.com
6. Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve: 17 miles south of Mason near the James River. Open 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays from mid-May to early October; 325-347-5970
7. Frio Bat Cave: east of U.S. Highway 83, just south of the Frio River. Privately owned, open mid-March through September, reservations must be made in advance; 830-966-2320 or http://www.hillcountryadventures.com
8. Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area: about 10 miles southeast of Fredericksburg. Owned by Texas Parks and Wildlife, open year-round sunrise to sunset, group tours available by reservation on Monday-Wednesday evenings; 866-978-2287
9. Stuart Bat Cave: at Kickapoo Cavern State Park, 22 miles north of Brackettville on FM674. Owned by Texas Parks and Wildlife, reservations are needed, park is open various hours; 830-563-2342
10. Waugh Drive Bridge: over Buffalo Bayou about 10 miles west of downtown Houston. Owned by the city of Houston, open year-round, reservations are not needed; 713-845-1000 or http://www.houstonparks.org