Field of Science


Bats, like Batman, Thrive in a Post-Apocalyptic Environment

Without plagues, earthquakes, and unhinged criminal masterminds, the residents of Gotham might never need to put up the bat signal. Real bats, of course, are less concerned with responding to emergencies than with eating bugs. But like Batman, they do just fine—if not better than ever—in recently devastated environments. Specifically, forests that have burned down.

For five weeks in the summer of 2002, a wildfire tore through national forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The McNally Fire was started by a careless human, and ended with over 150,000 acres burned. A year later, scientists came by to see how the bats were doing.

"Bat ecologists have known for a while now that bats respond favorably to controlled, low intensity fires," says Michael Buchalski of Western Michigan University, one of the study's authors. "We were more interested in the effects of large, natural fires." These blazes can completely destroy the forest canopy, leaving an area unrecognizable.

Researchers visited 14 sites in the woods, half in burned areas and half in areas that were untouched. They left devices that recorded the ultrasonic cries of echolocating bats at night. Since tallying up all the bat activity they heard could be misleading—one flourishing species of bats might mask the disappearance of another—they divided the recordings into groups of similar-sounding calls, representing groups of bat species.

The researchers estimated how plentiful each type of bat was based on how often they heard its calls. Comparing burned and unburned areas, they found that no bat group was bothered by the fire. Instead, every group of bats was at least as plentiful in the fire-scorched areas—and some were doing even better than usual.

Despite the absence of costumed criminals, a few factors might account for bats' increased activity in a scorched landscape. Bats hunt by swooping through the air and searching for insects below. With much of the vegetation cleared out by fire, insects have fewer places to hide, and hunting bats have a clearer view for their echolocation.

Additionally, the first plant regrowth after a fire leads to a boom in insect species. This means there's more prey than ever available for hungry bats. "One-stop shopping!" says coauthor Joseph Fontaine of Murdoch University. Those bats may find new places to roost—or, if you prefer, build their secret lairs—inside dead trees.

Buchalski and Fontaine say bats probably need a mix of landscapes to thrive, including areas that have recently burned. Carefully allowing forests to burn more like they did in the past could lead to "healthier forests and healthier wildlife populations," Buchalski says. "However, this is a very contentious issue within the field of forestry management."

"We have spent the majority of the last century suppressing and excluding fire," Fontaine adds. "More fire right now is probably not a bad thing whatsoever." (For non-human animals, anyway.) With climate change increasing the potential for drought and wildfire, the authors say that understanding how different species deal with fire is becoming more important.

Bats aren't the only animals that appreciate a fire. Fontaine says deer mice and other short-lived rodents respond very well to fire, and deer and elk like to chew on the soft new shrubs that have regrown a few years later. Several types of woodpeckers, he adds, rely on fires. Many bird species that forage in the open and don't need living trees to make their nests have a similar response to the bats.

Although forest fires are a boon for many species, the robin doesn't seem to be among them.

Buchalski, M., Fontaine, J., Heady, P., Hayes, J., & Frick, W. (2013). Bat Response to Differing Fire Severity in Mixed-Conifer Forest California, USA PLoS ONE, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057884

Image from public domain files at Wikia.

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