6,000 bats, trapped
St. Petersburg Times; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Jun 27, 2002; ALEX
Copyright Times Publishing Co. Jun 27, 2002
The caller sounded panicked. Daylight was fading, and
so was hope. Who knows how long they were trapped in the cave.
"He said he needed quick, nimble bodies," recalled
Charlotte Maidhof, a Citrus County resident whose husband and son are involved
in the Boy Scouts.
Within minutes, Maidhof sent an e-mail to scouts,
beckoning them to a remote cave in southeastern portion of the Withlacoochee
"They need bodies, shovels, trowels and 5 gallon buckets,"
At risk was a colony of 6,000 bats, mostly females and
their babies, sealed inside the cave by heavy silt pushed by heavy rains.
If they didn't get out soon, all could die. On Wednesday, after some heroic
efforts, the mosquito-eating bats were flying free once again.
"Some would think you were crazy for doing it because
it was a lot of effort," said Julie Royer of nearby Holder, who helped
at the site with her husband and son. "They might not think bats are important,
but they are to our environment. I'm relieved that they weren't doomed."
Liberating the horde of flying mammals proved far more
challenging than first expected.
The ordeal began Tuesday afternoon as thunderstorms
raged. A handful of scouts showed up to aid efforts already under way by
the state Division of Forestry.
It was too dangerous to go near the mouth of the cave
- down a steep and jagged ravine - so volunteers frantically worked to
slow the water, or at least divert it from the great cavern below. They
pushed hay bales and piled limestone shards into makeshift dams. It seemed
to work for a while, but rain continued to pound, carrying even more silt
to the cave entrance.
Drenched and covered with mud, the workers began to
pack up about 7 p.m. As he walked back to his truck, Vince Morris, a supervisor
with the Division of Forestry in Brooksville, wondered if his shoveling
had gone to waste. As the rain tapered off, a rainbow emerged. "Maybe there
is hope," Morris said, smiling. The group planned to return Wednesday.
But Robert Brooks, an experienced cave explorer from
Brooksville, had other ideas. After downing a can of Coke, he fished for
his hard hat and flashlight.
Maternity caves The bats in the cave are known as
southeastern bats, or myotis austroriparius, and have been considered for
protected species lists. Researchers are not sure how many there are in
Florida, but the population is in the tens of thousands.
The sheer number of females in the Citrus County cave
gave the situation an added sense of urgency.
Bats are slow to reproduce, so the loss of several
thousand would be a considerable blow to the population, said Cindy Marks,
director of the nonprofit Florida Bat Center in Port Charlotte. What's
more, there are less than a dozen "maternity caves" in Florida. Bats flock
to the caves in late March to start having their young. The babies, called
pups, are born hairless and the humidity of the caves keeps them warm.
Citrus County once had more caves, but one was closed
by a private landowner and the entrance to another was plugged up by the
bats themselves. They are prodigious poopers. The discovery of a new habitat
was welcome news to researchers, who have been trying to better understand
the species. The Citrus County cave was found earlier this year by a group
of explorers. Among them was Robert Brooks, a 28-year-old with a goatee
and an easygoing demeanor.
While others gazed at the rainbow over the cave late
Tuesday, Brooks headed back down the hill, his brown boots caked in mud.
The rain had stopped but water continued to flow from
the hilly terrain and into the cave.
The mouth of the cave is barely big enough for a person
to slide into and leads to a 240-foot crawlway Brooks calls the meatgrinder
before opening into large rooms. Brooks squeezed into the hole, the water
pouring over his body, and peered into an open area .
"It looked like a cyclone of bats," he reported later.
"There were hundreds of them trying to get out."
Some attempted to crawl across the ceiling to avoid
the water below; others, amazingly, seemed to be willing to take the plunge.
"I saw things I never thought I would see bats do,"
He hurriedly plucked bats out of the water, at least
20 by his count, and handed them to others, who placed the bats on the
dry walls of the cave entrance. They squeaked and shuddered for a moment,
then flew off.
As he did this, a group of men descended down the rocky
slope. They were Brooks' friends, all members of the Tampa Bay Area Grotto,
a cave club.
Taking turns, they chiseled away at the limestone
opening of the cave. As night fell, the opening grew larger.
The bats darted from the cave, free at last.
Southeastern bats (myotis austroriparius)
Weight: 7 grams Length: 3 inches Wingspan: 9 to 11
Range: southern Illinois and Indiana to southeastern
Oklahoma and northeastern Texas and the northern half of Florida.
Reproduction: Breeding takes place from February to
April and pups, usually two to each mother, are born in late April to late
Feeding: Bats begin feeding late in the evening, preferring
beetles, moths and mosquitoes.
SOURCE: Florida Bat Center
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction
or distribution is prohibited without permission.