COLUMBIA — When she grows up, 7-year-old Ella Byergo wants to be the state bat specialist.
Ever since the Columbia girl saw the bats at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park while attending a Girl Scouts event about careers for women in wildlife, she has been devouring everything she can find about the furry mammals.
She brings home books on bats from the library and has a "bat binder" where she gathers articles and pictures of her favorite creature.
Her favorite fact is that they're the only mammal that can fly, and her favorite species is the fruit bat.
So far, she said, she has toured four or five caves to see her favorite creature.
After the park's bat program Friday evening, she added Connor's Cave to her ever-growing list.
The program, which allows families to learn more about Missouri's bats, was run by Roxie Campbell, the park naturalist, and several of her assistants.
The evening began outside the park office with a game called "seeing with sound," to help everyone understand how echolocation works. Echolocation is the bat's special ability to see with sound waves.
After the game, Campbell gave a PowerPoint presentation about bats. She told her audience of 29 children and adults about Missouri's bats and the different species that can be found in the park.
Devil's Icebox Cave has a colony of about 2,000 bats, with six different species, Campbell said.
She also explained to the group how beneficial bats are, especially in their role in keeping down the nocturnal insect population.
"It's like a free buffet for them," she said.
As the sky turned to dusk, the group trekked up the trail to Devil's Icebox.
Campbell asked everyone to settle down on the platform above the cave, turn off their lights and stay quiet.
As the skies grew darker and the bugs thicker, the bats flashed silently by the observers.
After a few minutes of watching the shadowy creatures eat their "buffet," Campbell allowed everyone to turn on their lights and point them down into Devil's Icebox.
Campbell said she was amazed by the number of bats that were flying and estimated approximately 50 were flying out the caves at one time.
"It was the best showing at a bat program here that I've seen," she said.
*Campbell led the group through a tour of Connor's Cave. The bats fly between Devil's Icebox Cave and Connor's Cave in the evening. Devil's Icebox Cave has been closed for tours as a precautionary measure since July 2010, when a particular fungus that leads to the potentially fatal white-nosed syndrome in bats was found to be spreading through Missouri.
For some people, seeing so many bats at once was a new experience.
But for Latricia Vaughn, a Columbia resident, it was nothing new.
She was a tour guide at Boone Cave in Rocheport for three years. The cave was closed after the Flood of 1993.
One of her tasks was to wake up the bats in the morning by turning on the lights. This helped the bats move to a different cave to protect them from the incoming visitors.
Vaughn was dressed appropriately for the evening, with a bat-themed shirt, earrings and socks. She brought along her husband, Bill Vaughn, and her three grandchildren to the program. Bill Vaughn also sported a bat shirt.
Even though she no longer works with bats, she still likes to read articles and stories about them.
"They do so much good," she said.
Although the turnout was lower than previous years, Campbell said the program went well and that she had a good group this year.
She said she hopes the program helps people to realize how bats enrich our lives.
"Many wild animals illustrate that they have abilities we don't," Campbell said. "Bats are foremost in that."
The program will be offered again at 7:15 p.m. Saturday. It will also be offered on Aug. 17 and 18.