We recently had the opportunity to both meet and have an engaging conversation with Dr. Rada Petric, Director of the Institute for the Environment at Highlands Field Site in Highlands, North Carolina, as well as Research Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Dr. Petric is studying the fascinating world of bat’s, in-particular their migration patterns and ecological impact on North Carolina.
Hello! It’s great to meet you Dr. Petric. Please introduce yourself.
Hi! And it’s great to meet you as well in person. So, as you mentioned in your opening, my family and I live in Highlands, NC, where I act as the Director for the UNC Institute for the Environment at the Highlands Biological Site. I’m also a Research Assistant Professor at UNC and that connection allows us, at the Highlands Biological Field Station (highlandsbiological.org), to enjoy the resources and support from UNC.
It’s interesting as I think about my research focus on bats, as I did not set out to dedicate my studies to bats. My graduate work focused on studying small mammals, which is where I became infatuated with bats! I saw them as sort of the “underdog” of the mammal world, and very misunderstood by the majority of people.
So, you became intrigued with bats from a research perspective, but how did you first become interested in bats?
That’s right. Perhaps I’ve always had a connect with small mammals, such as bats, and never fully realized the connection.
I was born and grew-up in Bosnia, and during the war I became separated from parents for a prolonged period. You can imagine as a young child being separated from your parents – it was quite dramatic and caused me to have PTSD. The only place I found any comfort from my trauma was in an old barn where I would take respite among the animals at night. Bats were the only active member of the barn family at night – a sort of “night-protectors.” I found the animals to be so predictable, and reliable, which was vastly different than the human world I was experiencing. Humans, to me at a young age, were the scary part and so unpredictable. To this day, I’m much more comfortable living outside in the wild then I am living among the urban or suburban sprawl.
So, perhaps my connection and passion for bats started at a young age in Bosnia.
I have a true love and appreciation for bats, and find it is my job to ensure more people understand and are aware of the important role and purpose they serve within our eco-system.
Debunking bat misnomers goes hand-in-hand with helping raise awareness.
What are some of the biggest misunderstandings about bats?
Well, one of the biggest misconceptions is that bats are rodents. Bats are mammals and belong to their own group called Chiroptera (Latin meaning for hand-wing) – bats are not rodents with wings. There are over 5,550 mammal species, and approximately 1,400 are bats. Bats are much more closely related to primates than they are to rodents.
Closely linked to the rodent misconception, is that all bats carry rabies. This is also false. Less than .5% of all bats carry rabies. So, we are way more likely to contract rabies from a wayward dog then we are to contract rabies from that of bat.
Another misunderstanding is that bats are blind. Bats in fact are not blind. Bats have eyesight that is better than that of humans. Bats don’t rely upon their eyesight to fly. Bats have highly sophisticated echo sensing capacities which allow them to navigate, hunt and communicate at night. Bats are nocturnal creators and conduct all their activities, including feeding at night. Imagine flying through the woods, some fly at 100 mph, in the pitch black of the night using only your eyesight! Only through their advanced echo sensing system can they traverse dark woods without incident.
The final myth is that all bats are bloodsuckers. In fact, there are only three bat species in the world that are bloodsuckers. These “vampire” bats are indigenous to both Central and South America, and are far more enamored with cow, pig, horse blood than that of human blood – let’s face it, we just don’t taste that good!
What role(s) do bats play in our environment/eco-system?
Bats are among the most diverse mammalian groups; yet more than 200 bat species are considered threatened. Bats provide essential ecosystem services such as insect management & suppression, seed dispersal, and pollination, all of which have direct and indirect positive effects on humans.
Bats are an important insectivorous species for North Carolina, consuming bugs equal to their body weight, 8 to 35 grams, every night, that’s like ingesting 1,100 mosquitos every evening!
Nationally, insect control by bats is valued at $4 billion dollars annually by suppressing pest species associated with food crops. In the eastern United States, North Carolina, with 17 bat species, stands out as the state with the most documented insectivorous bat species east of Texas. The Highlands Biological Center and surrounding areas contain 13 of the 17 bat species.
So, what’s the big deal with bat guano?
Ha, ha! I figured we talk about bat poop at some point! Yes, bat guano (poop, dung) is typically a nitrogen rich substance, that’s lighter on phosphorous and potassium. So, it helps in all three phases of plant growth. In addition to the presence of these three major nutrients, bat guano is loaded with micronutrients healthy plants need to survive.
Microbes in bat guano are known to help aid in cleansing toxic soils. Bat guano microbes are also efficient decomposers and help control the incidence of soil diseases and dangerous nematodes.
It’s versatile and can be used as a soil conditioner, soil enriching agent and can improve drainage. Bat guano makes for a good compost activator, speeding up decomposition process.
What research do you oversee/conduct and where does this take place?
I’m actively engaged in several different research projects across North Carolina. We are currently conducting an urban study in the Piedmont area – Greensboro, NC. We are working in conjunction with UNCG and Greensboro’s science center to better understand how wetlands, located in areas with dense population centers, alter (positively or negatively) bat activity.
We’ve recently started research in Julian, NC pertaining to bat restoration systems. We are working in conjunction with the Wildlife Resources Commission on a mitigation project to learn how species composition changes over time as their environments are restored. We will be monitoring pre, during and post restoration phases, with a 7-year monitoring of bats. Ongoing monitoring will include bat detectors which monitor bat calls (sophisticated sounds, undetectable to human ears). These bat calls will help us learn more about the differences between foraging and social calls as their environment(s) are restored. We also started new projects in the mountains, 1) to monitor bats along the Appalachian Trail, 2) determine how human-made noise alters bat activity and 3) determine how urbanization influences bats.
I have had the pleasure of sharing our bat research and learnings at UNC as a guest lecturer, as well as lecturing as adjunct professor at UNCG. I’ve also enjoyed presenting our research at conferences here in the US and abroad – Brazil, Peru, and Canada.
What can “we” do to help protect and persevere the bat population?
Erecting bat houses is a great way to help provide protection for bats. Bat houses should have two openings, one at both the top and one at bottom of the house. It’s best to paint boxes a darker color, such as medium to dark brown, and locate houses near water sources; bats require water daily.
Avoid mounting bat houses to a tree, as predators can more easily gain access to bat homes nailed or hung from trees. Bat houses should be located on a separate pole, roughly 12-to-25 feet above ground, in an area that receives 6-to-8 hours of sunlight per day. Assuming you follow the above directions, you will have a 90% probability of inviting bats into their new bat house within 24-months…once they find their home, they are likely to dwell for years more!
Perhaps the most important thing we can do to preserve and protect our bat species is to be extremely conscientious about pesticide usage. Synthetic chemical pesticides are wreaking havoc on bat populations. These hazardous compounds reduce the amount of bat food (insects) in farmlands across North Carolina. Unfortunately, our state ranks 6th in the nation for pesticide usage. Bats die when they can’t find food, when they ingest poisoned insects and when they consume water infected with synthetic pesticides.
Using certified (OMRI) organic pesticides is the much-preferred option. Replacing synthetic pesticides with organic options is not always the cheapest short-term option, but it is always the cheapest long-term option.
Unfortunately, there are some bat species in North Carolina whose population have dropped 98% over the course of (not sure how long a timeframe). Pesticides are playing a role in the decline rates, as to is a fungus known as White Nose Syndrome. The fungus has decimated the east coast populations of cave-dwelling species, and three species are federally listed as threatened or endangered. The declining US bat population has directly affected the increase insect population, which further exacerbates pesticide usage.
Some additional fun bat facts?
There are many bat species who specialize as pollinators. One such bat species is believed to be the only pollinator of agave plants. So, I guess we have bats to thank for our Tequila!
The largest known bat species in the world is called the Flying Fox and has a wingspan of more than 6 feet, while the smallest known bat species is no more than the size of a human thumb.
Thank you Dr. Petric for taking some time to speak with us about bats and the important role they play in our ecosystem! We look forward to sharing your story with our customers and vendors. Please follow Dr. Petric’s work via Instagram at r_petric or highlandsbiostation.