By Emma Richards
More than 50,000 students call the University of Florida home, and while that is a lot of Gators, the campus is home to even more bats.
Hundreds of thousands of the misunderstood mammals live across from Lake Alice, where they dwell in the world’s largest occupied bat houses.
The colony of bats was initially discovered at the UF track and tennis stadiums in 1991. In the spots where fans were cheering, bats were roosting – causing a mess and a notable stench.
That same year, the UF Athletics Association built a house to rehome the bats from the stadiums. But the night after they were transported to their new home, all the bats left, and did not return for three years.
Now, the houses are primarily occupied by around 400,000 to 500,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats that remain at UF year-round and do not hibernate or migrate.
“They do all these great things for us and then we turn around and we're scared of them,” Mathis said.
Verity Mathis, the mammal collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History says bats are the only mammals that can fly, and the Brazilian free-tailed species found at UF are tremendous at it.
“They’ve actually been documented to go as fast as 100 miles an hour in like short bursts, which is just amazing to think about,” she said in an episode of the From Florida podcast. “This one species is just capable of so much.”
Along with their fast flight, Brazilian free-tailed bats can go as high as 9,000 to 10,000 feet in the air and venture over 30 miles a night forging for insects like mosquitos, moths, beetles and flies.
Despite being associated with blood-sucking vampires in popular culture, only three out of 1,400 bat species drink blood and they aren’t located in North America. Bats do not want to attack humans; in fact, they avoid people using their vision and echolocation skills.
Bats can live for many decades and are more closely related to humans than they are to rodents. They also provide critical environmental services such as pest control, fertilization and pollination. Mathis says bats are misunderstood.
“They do all these great things for us and then we turn around and we're scared of them,” she said. “We want to be respectful of them and of their lifestyle and we don't want to encroach upon them and bother them.”
Mathis says if people do encounter an injured bat, they should not touch it with their bare hands because bats can carry rabies. It is best to put on thick gloves, place the bat into a container and call a local wildlife rehabilitation center.
There are 13 bat species in Florida, and two of them are endangered. The Florida Wildlife Commission is actively monitoring those populations.
In Alachua County, people and businesses, including Swamp House Brewery and Lubee Bat Conservancy, have bat houses on their properties.
Mathis advises those interested in putting a bat house in their yard to do research to ensure that the right kind of house is purchased and that it is placed in the proper location to align with Florida’s specific requirements, which can be found here on the UF/IFAS website. For Mathis, these are all steps toward accepting a widely misunderstood mammal.
“I think as long as we continue these conversations about telling people how cool bats are then maybe eventually pop culture will catch up to that,” she said.
Watch a recent video featuring Verity Mathis here: https://youtu.be/vbFZfVwGwYE
Verity Mathis Mammals Collections Manager
Verity Mathis manages the Florida Museum Mammalogy Collections, taking care of over 35,000 specimens of mammals from around the world.