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Bat Sniffer

December 2, 2009

I like a faint smell of skunk, a gentle waft of monkey musk and even an odiferous breeze of bat. Don’t get me wrong, I like traditionally pleasant scents too. Orange blossom. Honeycomb. Fresh mown grass. But when I smell the distinct pungent perfume of the chiropterans I can’t help but get all aflutter.

Bats belong to the Order Chiroptera and number well over 1000 species. Considering that there are roughly 4000+ known species of mammals in the world, bats account for at least one quarter of them. Florida is home to 13 species of flying mammalians yet I was starting to think they had all disappeared. Since 2007, I had seen only one bat. One. But on a warm fall October evening, that would change.

The bridge over Judd Creek in Fort Myers Florida harbors a natural wonder. The underside is full of bats. The double lane concrete structure bridges a narrow gap on the mangrove-lined tidal creek and every evening at dusk, motorists whizz by unaware of the 1000+ bats that emerge for a night of insectivorous snacking.

To witness this spectacle, we kayaked to the bridge before dusk and like clockwork, the first of the bats began to gracefully dive from their concrete roost as the light faded. The expansion joints on the belly of the bridge are spaced perfectly for the two species of bats that roost here. In fact Mexican Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) roost exclusively in manmade structures in Florida. On the other hand the Evening Bat (Nycticeius humeralis) is more often found roosting under loose bark or in dead trees but they have been known to roost in the bridge as well.

Normally it would be tough to identify one species of bat from another in flight but Mexican Free-tails are unique. They have brown to grey fur and a twelve-inch wingspan but most notably they have a tail that extends out beyond the uropatagium, a membrane that typically connects the hind legs and boney tail.

As the bats plunge and ascend, swirl and dive again, the six foot gap between bridge and creek fills with hundreds of elegant, swarming bats and the evening breeze bellows a fantastic scent of bat musk. Often confused for the smell of guano or bat droppings, the pheromone helps bats identify one another. The swirling mass begins to separate and one by one the bats zip off into the night.

I gently float with a subtle current, watching a wisp of a blackened wind trail off into the darkness leaving me in the lightless night with an ephemeral aroma of bat.

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