If you ask Dr. Tara Chestnut, a wildlife ecologist, the circus is always in town.
The performers start just before sunset, arriving in theatrical twirls as they fly through the air. Best of all, some of them are eating mosquitos every 3.5 seconds.
The troupe? Bats.
Not as in “crazy.” Chestnut’s aim is to get people excited about bats. The creatures cause a wide range of reactions, she said, from fear and disgust to awe and joy.
A 30-minute vaudeville-esque performance that took place 10 times at Mount Rainier National Park over the weekend brought about 400 viewers one step closer toward understanding the nocturnal flying mammals.
On Tuesday night at Longmire, the show, written by Chestnut, “Wild West Roper” David Lichtenstein and JuggleMania’s Rhys Thomas, was performed for the last time at Rainier. By the end of its tour, “Mad About Bats” will be shown at all eight of the North Coast and Cascades Network National Parks and nine different schools.
With juggling and lassos, the educational comedy displays how bats fly, eat, hibernate and hunt. “Mad About Bats” also teaches viewers of all ages about the history of flight and life on earth.
Both of the Vaudevillians are school teachers and have experience in science-based shows.
Bats use echolocation to find their way and their prey, performance attendees learned. This means they screech in frequencies too high for human ears to hear. The rapid sound waves bounce off their surroundings and echo back into the bat’s ears, which are very large relative to the bat’s body overall.
To keep from going deaf, bats fold their ears shut when they don’t need to use echolocation.
When the skit was over, Chestnut used an iPad and a bat-detecting device to show the nearby bat species. Bat calls vary between species, so the device is mostly accurate in differentiating between the flying mammals across North America.
The National Park Service calls this “bio blitz” technology. And while Chestnut’s professional version isn’t likely to make most people’s shopping list, she gave her dad an amateur $150 version for his birthday.
“If you wanted to become a bat watcher, you absolutely could,” Chestnut said.
One quarter of all mammal species on earth are bats, with more than 1,400 different kinds across the world, Chestnut said. Many of those are insectivores that play a vital role in forest management and other kinds of agriculture by preying on bugs that would otherwise harm trees and crops.
“I think (that’s) one of the most under-appreciated facts about bats,” Chestnut told The Chronicle. “It’s estimated that they provide these (agricultural) industries with billions of dollars in services to keep crop pests at bay.”
Others eat fruit, and many are pollinators. Only one kind of bat actually drinks blood, vampire bats in Central and South America. They primarily bite livestock, and vaccines are given to the animals to prevent disease from bat bites.
As can all mammals, bats can transmit rabies, so they should not be handled by people. Bat researchers have to keep up-to-date on rabies vaccines.
“Bats, like all living things, are part of our natural and cultural heritage. We don’t have to look far to see how bats are woven into cultures throughout the world in our stories, mythologies, films, TV shows, books and art,” Chestnut said. “Halloween decorations are all over the stores right now.”
Lesson plans for fourth graders from “Mad About Bats” in English and Spanish will be made available by the National Park Service after the in-person performance tour wraps up. They will include highlight clips from the show and fun bat facts.
“For me, as a scientist, it’s incredibly important that we make our science accessible, that we don’t just publish our work in journals,” Chestnut said. “I feel strongly that there are lots of creative ways that we can talk to people about the science we do and demonstrate why we’re doing it while also having fun. A product of that is the show, ‘Mad About Bats.’”
When the first case of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that only affects bats, was discovered in Washington in 2016, it was about 10 years sooner than researchers expected, Chestnut said.
“Not only white nose syndrome, but a lot of invasive species, a lot of diseases, the main issue is global trade,” Chestnut said.
“We're just moving and transporting things at such a rapid pace that it's impossible to ensure that all of those things are free of pests and invasive species. We think that white-nose syndrome came from Europe.”
The fungal disease primarily impacts hibernating bats by causing them to burn fat and energy needed to survive the winter.
It’s been identified in one colony of bats at Mount Rainier National Park.
One of Chestnut’s main roles with the National Park Service has been developing and implementing a response to white-nose syndrome in the North Coast and Cascades Network.
Recreationalists, campers and travelers of any kind can help slow the spread of white-nose syndrome and other diseases by generally keeping clean and tidy, Chestnut said. This includes being sure no bats, frogs or other creatures are inside campers and tents before leaving an area, washing vehicles regularly, scrubbing shoes and following gear-cleaning protocol before entering bat-filled areas such as caves.