Florida's Scrappy Endangered Bats Thrive in Abandoned Buildings in Miami

Zoo Miami has opened a research lab dedicated to saving America's rarest bat.
Zoo Miami has opened a research lab dedicated to saving America's rarest bat. Photo by Micaela Jemison via Bat Conservation International
About a hundred years ago, Florida's bonneted bats inhabited large hollows of mature pines and glided over the vast space of the Sunshine State's 180,000 acres of pine rockland while feeding on insects.

South Florida's rapid development all but wiped out the pinelands, decimating the bats' habitat. Highway construction in Punta Gorda destroyed one of their last known roost sites in 1979. Conservationists thought the species had gone extinct. Then a pregnant bat surfaced in Coral Gables almost ten years later.

Little is known about the bonneted bat, but the species has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to habitat destruction and survive where it can. Endemic to Florida, the endangered bat is found in about a dozen counties, including Miami-Dade. Now Zoo Miami has partnered with the nonprofit Bat Conservation International to open a research lab dedicated to saving America's rarest bat and studying how the species has survived in the county's urban environment. The lab opened just in time for Bat Week, the last week of October.

Frank Ridgley, head of Zoo Miami's conservation and research department, says he doesn't know of any natural roost site in Miami-Dade. Since losing their habitat to high-rises and highways, bonneted bats — named for the way their ears curve over their faces — have made themselves at home in abandoned buildings and under Spanish-tile roofs of houses.

"It's amazing that they've made it the past 100 years with Miami changing so rapidly," Ridgley says. "Not a lot of species are that adaptable."

Studying the bats — where they drink water and forage, what bugs they eat, how far they fly, and where they live and reproduce — could be crucial to ensuring their survival. Studying them can be tricky, though. Ridgley compares bonneted bats to jet airplanes. They have long, narrow wings built for high speed and altitude, making the creatures difficult to track. Bonneted bats need large, open spaces to forage. Understandably, urban Miami isn't the best habitat for them, but they make it work at golf courses, parking lots, parks, and airports.

When the bonneted bat was listed as endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn't designate a critical habitat for the species to be preserved because the service couldn't determine which habitat the bats required, according to Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center is in litigation with the Fish and Wildlife Service to compel the agency to designate critical habitat. Most of the bonneted bats' known roost sites will be inundated by sea-level rise by the end of the century.

Lopez says the rediscovery of the bonneted bat about ten years after conservationists thought its population had been wiped out presented a "second chance" to preserve the species.

About a year ago, Zoo Miami and Bat Conservation International installed 16 artificial bat houses across the county to attract the flying mammals. Seven of the houses were inhabited. Ridgley says they hope to install more.

"We're trying to figure out what the bat needs," he says, "to provide bats alternative places to roost where they're safe."

A multitude of threats can contribute to the bonneted bat population's undoing: climate change, food scarcity because of pesticide use, and human-bat interactions. People often don't know when they're sharing their homes with bats.

"When someone decides to get their roof repaired or tent their home for termites, they could accidentally kill off a whole colony of these really endangered bats," Ridgley says.

What can humans do? If you see a hole in your roof, keep an eye out at night for bonneted bats and their droppings. Before calling for repairs or an exterminator, dial the Fish and Wildlife Service at 772-562-3909.
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Alexi C. Cardona is a former staff writer at Miami New Times.