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Families learn about bats at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

Saturday, July 17, 2010 | 2:43 p.m. CDT; updated 4:18 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 17, 2010
Participants in the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' presentation about bats Friday night walk toward Devil's Icebox Cave, where they watched bats fly out as the sun set.

COLUMBIA — After a quarter-mile hike to the Devil’s Icebox Cave entrance Friday evening, the chatter stops — a feat for some children — and the flashlights are switched off. Chirping cicadas and occasional twig snaps break the silence, and fireflies are now the sole light source against the glow of the fading sun.

It’s time for silence.

See it yourself

Park naturalist Roxie Campbell will present "Bats: Unique, Awesome, Valuable and Threatened" including a hike to Devil's Icebox Cave to watch the bats fly out and a tour of Connor's Cave again in August.

When: Aug.13 and 14

Time: 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Where: Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, 5901 S. Highway 163

Price: The event is free, but space is limited. Registration is required. Call 449-7400 for information or to register.

Recommended ages: 7 to adult

FAST BAT FACTS:

  • Bats are the only mammal that can fly.
  • Bats can essentially see in the dark using echolocation.
  • Bats can use echolocation better than the Navy.
  • The saliva of vampire bats has has been to create a medicine to help stroke victims.

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Everyone has to be quiet so the bats won’t know they are there, park naturalist Roxie Campbell explained to the group of about 40, mostly families with children, waiting for bats to fly out of Devil's Icebox Cave.

“Keep in mind those movies you see are pretend,” Campbell said to quell any nerves while the waiting game began.

Their silence was rewarded. Small groups of endangered gray bats and a few tri-colored bats flew out of the cave as the remaining sunlight retreated — hard to distinguish from birds for an untrained observer. Birds fly fast and straight, but bats take longer, meandering from side to side as they look for insects.

Before the group walked to the cave, Campbell gave a presentation about what makes bats unique and valuable, and how they differ from the depictions of the mammals in movies. She also explained the threat of white-nose syndrome, first discovered in Missouri on a bat in a private cave in Pike County in mid-April.

White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease, speeds bats’ metabolism during hibernation, which causes them to awaken in search of insects during winter. They typically use up their fat reserves and die of starvation or die of exposure during their search for food.

The fungus, Geomyces destructans, was first discovered in a cave in New York in 2006. It has killed more than 1 million bats in the United States and Canada, according to Bat Conservation International.

It is primarily spread by bat-to-bat contact, but evidence suggests humans can also spread it from cave to cave. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources temporarily closed Missouri’s wild caves as a precautionary measure against the spread of the fungus. Show caves have been left open for public tours.

Department of Natural Resources spokesman Judd Slivka said the fungus is currently not widespread in Missouri , but  the department has temporarily closed Missouri’s wild caves as a precaution.

“We’re concerned because we have a lot of caves,” Slivka said. “We have seen in other states that this has decimated bat populations.”

The department is re-evaluating the cave closure, and is expecting to make an announcement next week.

On Friday, the children were able to learn what makes bats special during Campbell’s presentation, but they also got to see it first-hand during a cave tour, after they waited for bats to fly out.

Friday’s group donned bright blue helmets to tour Connor’s Cave, which shares an entrance with Devil’s IceBox Cave, after watching bats fly out. 

The tour was a welcome relief from the humid hike. The cave is nearly 55 degrees year-round.

“I’m wet and cold,” Kiersten Morris, 13, said after the cave tour. “My feet feel a little numb.”

Morris is part of an eighth grade girls’ competitive basketball team in town for the Show-Me State Games. The team and their families try different activities when they travel.

The group saw more bats during the cave tour. Jakob Campos, 9, said seeing the bats was his favorite part.

There was time for fun tied in with the learning. One group of families played a game that mimicked echolocation, which bats used to navigate in the dark, while the others watched Campbell’s presentation. Two players were blindfolded. One was designated as a bat and the other a moth.

“Use your echo, bat!” coached Kathy Campos, Jakob’s grandmother, as children tried to tag one another sightless.

Jakob Campos said Friday's tour changed the way he thinks about bats.

“When you look at them really close, they’re beautiful. Really beautiful,” he said. “I used to think they’d just come up and bite you.”

His sister Jordan Campos, 6, confessed she was scared of bats before the presentation began, but she changed her mind after seeing bats up-close.

“I don’t care about movies,” she said. “I care about real things. I’m not scared anymore.”


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