By Valerie Kimble
CARLSBAD, N.M., Nov. 19, 2008 – When the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) officially breaks ground on its new building Monday, Nov. 24, the Center will noting a significant event for caves’ most famous inhabitants – bats.
The planned facility will have its own built-in bat roost; and, in time, the flying mammals themselves. NCKRI is a non-profit institute created by Congress in 1998 to promote research, education and stewardship of cave and karst resources both nationally and internationally. NCKRI is operated through New Mexico Tech, with key partnerships with the federal government, through the National Park Service; the state of New Mexico through NMT; and the City of Carlsbad.
NCA Architects of Albuquerque designed the building with many features that meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s criteria for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, its “green” rating system.
The bat roost will set the National Cave and Karst Research Institute apart from its scientific peers.
Executive Director Dr. George Veni said the concept of a bat roost complements the mission of the organization to be educational, research-oriented and beneficial to the ecosystem.
“We’re breaking new ground here,” said Veni of the built-in bat habitat. He said one wall of the building will be inset a couple of feet to create an overhang with six crevices two feet high and three-quarters of an inch wide.
The roost will include cameras, microphones and temperature probes so the public can see and hear the bats in an exhibit area and on the web; these instruments also will allow scientists to conduct non-invasive research on the mammals. Veni hopes that the Institute’s education outreach programs can involved local school children to conduct long-term observations of bat behavior.
The roost is the first-ever to be incorporated as an integral part of a building’s design, and not as an afterthought, such as nailing makeshift roosts to the side of a building, or erecting them on poles.
Most bat houses are made of wood that provide a grippy surface. In Carlsbad, the roosts will be textured concrete, Veni said. Build a roost and they will come – both the bats and the curious, he believes.
Veni came up with the concept and refined it closely with Mylea Bayless of Bat Conservation International, and then worked with the design team to incorporate it into construction plans.
The conservation group, headquartered in Austin, Texas, was founded in 1982 in response to a global concern that bats are essential to the balance of nature and human economies and are in alarming decline.
More than half of the 47 species of bats in the United States use highway structures as roosts, including about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats living under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas.
Part of the Institute’s mission is to educate people about the misunderstood mammals, which often live in caves and communicate through type of sonar, similar to that used by dolphins.
Bats get a bad rap because of their cinematic portrayal as blood-sucking vampires, and from a rabies scare some years ago which was blown out of proportion.
“Bats spend most of their time grooming, cleaning and tending their young,” said Veni. “They’re actually fastidious and very clean.”
In the Carlsbad area, they play a critical role in insect control. Other bats are important pollinators, sustaining desert ecosystems to tropical fruits such as mangoes and bananas. In other parts of the world, bats are the key species for reforestation, and they don’t compete with humans for food – that is, unless we all suddenly start to crave flying critters.
The bats made headlines when they suddenly began moving in by the thousands. Reacting in fear and ignorance, many people petitioned to have the bat colony eradicated.
About that time, BCI stepped in and told the people of Austin the surprising truth: bats are gentle and incredibly sophisticated animals; bat-watchers have nothing to fear if they don’t try to handle bats; and on the nightly flights out from under the bridge, the Austin bats eat 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects, including agricultural pests.
As the people of Austin came to appreciate their bats, the population under the Congress Avenue Bridge grew to be the largest urban bat colony in North America.
More than 100,000 people visit the bridge to witness the bat flight, generating $10 million in tourism revenue annually, according to BCI.
On an average summer night in Texas and New Mexico, bats consume an estimated 1.5 million pounds of the flying insects. A staple of the bat diet is the corn earworm moth, a major agricultural pest and public enemy number-one for corn crops. Moths that harm cotton crops are another favorite bat snack.
Even bat guano has value. Historically, it was prized as a fertilizer and mined from Carlsbad Cavern and other caves. It is still mined from a few caves and used to give a rich, chemical-free boost to garden soils. Scientists are studying microbes found in bat guano for various industrial purposes.
One potential benefit is medicinal. Using their sharp teeth, vampire bats make tiny cuts in the skin of a sleeping animal. The bats’ saliva contains a chemical that keeps the blood from clotting, and without the side effects of current anticoagulants on the market, according to BATS Magazine, a quarterly publication for BCI members.
For NCKRI, the opportunity to change public opinion about the night-flying mammals, and to further study the cave and karst features that attract them, will move a step closer to reality with the November 24 groundbreaking ceremony.
– NMT –