Not all bats are bloodthirsty. Zion's bat program teams up with climbers to uncover the unknown. – St George News


ST. GEORGE — On the towering, colorful cliffs of Zion National Park, groundbreaking research in the bat world is taking flight and more funds are needed to continue.
A bat biologist said the park’s Big Wall Bats program partners citizen climbers with bat scientists. And they identified the first documented cases of hibernating bats in the park. They are also watchful to ensure the bats don’t get “white-nose syndrome,” a deadly disease spreading in the United States.
Zachary Warren, a bat biologist for Bat Conservation International working with the park, said the program has one of the few teams worldwide to do this research. The park has thousands of miles of cliff-face and acres of lava fields.
He told St. George News that tracking the individual bats requires advanced technology and more funds are needed to track the bats with antennas and radio telemetry. The devices would track the bats to where they hibernate on the cliff faces and slopes.
Research began in the winter of 2019 and was funded through the Zion Forever Project, a nonprofit. This helped the park establish the climbing program, with recreational climbers participating in research and data collection and coordinating with park scientists.
“We’re up in the wintertime climbing on the cliff faces and looking for that disease and learning a lot about the bat’s ecology,” Warren said. “And we’re also monitoring for white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease, killing bats around the whole continent.”
Because little is known about cliff hibernation, where bats spend the winter, Warren said climber observations help researchers learn more about bat’s behavior and monitor for white-nose syndrome. This fungal-caused disease has deadly effects during hibernation.
There are 17 different species of bats in Zion National Park, and Warren said that to locate the elusive bats in winter, teams will capture them and then track them back to their winter locations.
The procedure of capturing bats is challenging, but it provides them with vital information, he said. Large nets are draped, often over pools and streams. As the bats emerge and dart for insects, they become entangled in the artificial netting. A trained park biologist will work to calm the bat, take measurements and identify its species, sex and age.   
“We’re the hotspot of the state for the most bat species diversity,” Warren said.
In the winter, Warren gathers a team of about a dozen rock climbers for the program. He puts them through an intensive three-day course that focuses on self-rescue, rescue and rope skills. Then the climbers go out with him three days a week for four months climbing in Zion to study the bats.
Bats serve essential functions of which many people may not be aware. Warren said people don’t usually see bats as much as birds because birds are out during the daytime. There are as many or more bats out at night helping control bugs and pollinating.
“We are sharing these spaces with wildlife, and even though we don’t ask them to, bats are helping us,” Warren said. “Bats are controlling agriculture by pollinating our food sources, and they’re doing a lot of good for us.”
A local climbing guide, Steffan Gregor, helps train the program’s volunteers. Gregor also serves as the president of the Zion Climbing Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for climbing in the area.
“This project hosts a rare opportunity to help pioneer research that can only be accessed by climbing, he said. “Zac’s team is highly skilled and uniquely qualified for the task at hand. … Each day the team goes out is another day that could change the face of what we know about bat habitat.”
Stephani Lyon, Zion Forever‘s director of philanthropy, said as the park’s 90-year nonprofit partner, they are excited to invest in programs that support deeper research into Zion’s wildlife.
“Bats are an important species in the park and helping fund this unique monitoring program provides scientists baseline data for future research,” Lyon said. “We are privileged to work alongside such experts in their field.”
Warren has these tips if you come across a bat:
There are many myths surrounding bats, Warren said. One of the fables is not to let a bat fly into one’s hair.
“This myth began because bats like to check out new things in the environment, so people will see them swooping down close to a person to check them out,” Warren said. “I have long hair and can proudly say I have had zero bats get caught in it.”
According to the park’s website, there are no bloodthirsty bats in the area. Those bats are only found in Mexico, Central and South America. The park’s bats eat insects, and some larger bats eat scorpions and tarantulas.
Another legend, Warren said, is that bats are blind. They are not. Their eyes are perfect for lowlight situations. Bats rely on their vision and hearing when it comes to socializing, navigation and protection.
Other bat facts:
According to the website Bat Week, almost 70% of bat species feed primarily on insects, some bats are carnivorous, eating meat like rodents, frogs and fish. Only three species of bats feed on animal blood, with two of these species specializing in bird blood. Many other bats eat pollen, nectar or fruit – these bats are vital for pollinating flowers and spreading seeds that grow new plants and trees.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.
Stephanie DeGraw is an award-winning journalist. For 25 years, she engaged in journalism, broadcasting and public relations. DeGraw worked for the Salt Lake Tribune, Associated Press and The City Journals. She was a reporter for a CBS television station in Twin Falls, Idaho. She graduated from Weber State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Broadcasting.
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