Tom Kunz, director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, watched hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats swirl out of Frio Cave in their nightly search for moths over southwest Texas. “All these bats are beginning to feed, and it’s just a spectacular sight,” Kunz told the San Antonio Express-News. “I have been coming here for the past 20 years, and I am always mesmerized by it.”
Each March, an estimated 100 million bats migrate from Mexico to Texas, where they roost and breed in the cool, damp caves and highway bridges, reporter Anastasia Ustinova wrote. The bats consume enormous quantities of insects, including many damaging crop pests.
Kunz is part of a high-powered project, funded by a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, that is using cutting-edge technology to put a dollar value on the eating habits of those bats and to promote bats as “one of the most cost-effective and safest pest controls available.”
Project researchers from Texas Parks and Wildlife, Boston University, the University of Tennessee and the U.S. Agriculture Department have concluded that, by eliminating insects before they strike farm fields, the bats save local farmers up to $1.7 million a year in the “Winter Garden” region southwest of San Antonio, the Express-News reported.
Researchers estimate that some of the bats’ favored targets, such as corn earworms and tobacco budworms, cost farmers nationwide about $1 billion in crop damage and pest control. The millions of Mexican freetails, capable of consuming up to two million pounds of insects per night, intercept the migratory path of moths, which can travel and lay eggs all the way from Mexico to Wisconsin, the newspaper said.
“People living in the Midwest don’t care about these bats, but they should,” Kunz said. The bats “are doing them a great favor.”
In addition to quantifying the value of bats, scientists hope their five-year research program, now in its fourth year, will help counter centuries of negative myths about bats and encourage the conservation of their shrinking natural habitat.
“How many people do you know who are not afraid of bats?” Bat Conservation International Founder Merlin Tuttle asked the reporter. “People have typically feared them for being small and difficult to understand.”
“Bats are victims of superstitions and myth, they are feared and destroyed without people knowing what kind of value they provide,” said Patricia Morton, a project leader with Texas Parks and Wildlife. “This is the most important research that demonstrates the value of bats in large numbers.”