Before the renovation of Anderson Hall at the start of the 2013 fall semester, there was knowledge of a significant number of bats living in the belfry. This was confirmed by claims made by students and professors of hearing random, high-pitched squeaks occasionally echoing from the uppermost floor. Shortly after the Anderson renovation began summer of 2013, workers revealed that the rumor of bats living in the rafters was true.
Local news reporters made it seem as though this was a brand new and exciting discovery at the time which granted Maryville College a temporary increase in attention. In reality, anyone who visits Anderson Hall at some point or another is aware that the building had been populated by a huge colony of bats for several years.
Until the bell tower was exposed, the number of bats living in Anderson was unknown. Renovation on the building showed approximately 1,500 or more bats inhabiting the uppermost area of Anderson Hall. The species was identified to be the common Big Brown Bat.
According to Dr. David Unger, wildlife biologist and assistant professor of biology at Maryville College, these bats are actually quite beneficial to the ecosystem.
“We love the bats and want them to stay here because they are extremely important ecologically,” Unger said.
One benefit we gain from the big brown bats being on campus is the fact that they are insectivores. All the biting insects in the spring and summer are consumed by the bats. In fact, in a single night, one bat can consume one to two thousand insects alone, keeping the population of mosquitoes, flies, wasps and various other pests down.
The group of bats on campus is a maternal colony. During warmer seasons, these big brown bats come together in clusters so that their collective body heat allow for their pups to develop. Anderson made a perfect home because the attic space of the building was above the trees where the sun shone down from all sides, sustaining the ideal incubation temperature.
At the beginning of fall, big brown bats disperse in small family groups from Anderson and roost beneath loose bark of old-growth trees and even in man-made structures such as attics, barns, eaves and shutters. These bats are losing habitat all over the country due to the expanding and encroaching of civilization. Also, the big brown bats are in danger of becoming plagued by the disease of white nose syndrome, a fungus that affects bats all over the country.
“We’re seeing precipitous drops in bat population because of it and the great deforestation happening,” Unger said. “This is why we want to preserve our healthy, vibrant, and huge population of bats. We want to do everything we can to give them a place to live. They’re great little workers that help us keep our college campus manicured at absolutely no cost whatsoever.”
The reason why they ended up in Anderson Hall to begin with is because the college sits atop a hill and bats like being up as high as possible when roosting. Additionally, there are streams and rivers all around us, making Maryville College sort of a “bat central.” Since the college needed to renovate Anderson Hall for safety and aesthetic purposes, the bats had to be relocated.
According to Unger, the idea was that we “want them [the bats] to be our neighbors, not our house guests.” In order to get them out of the tightly constructed rafters they had wriggled into, little one-way doors were constructed on Anderson Hall so that the bats could leave, but not come back.
“We timed it to where they would have soon been leaving on their own anyway [to avoid the cold weather],” Unger said.
A bat condominium was raised on campus on Wednesday, Feb. 26. This bat condominium and the bat boxes in the college orchard were entirely funded by the administration of Maryville College. The administration felt the bat conservation project was important enough to invest in not only for its intrinsic, ecological importance, but because having boxes and condos would be a unique attribute and valuable resource for students on campus.
“When the bats start to colonize the boxes and condo, it will be a spectacle,” Unger said. “People are going to come to watch it, students can do research on it and we hope to get permits to put radio collars on a few bats to track them, following their migration patterns.”
Dr. Unger also said that he is currently negotiating for sonic equipment that will enable him to record the bats as they come and go from the condominium.
The conservation project was also aided by current chair of the Natural Sciences Division, Dr. Jerilyn Swann. Swann spoke with fellow colleagues, Drs. Drew Crain and Unger, about the situation of the big brown bats on campus.
Together, they found a way to aid in the administration’s mission to conserve the bats via building boxes and condos.
Because of this, although Unger has his hands deep in the project, he said that his part in the process is actually quite small in grand scheme of things.
“This is a group effort and I am just the funnel point for information,” he said. “In actuality, the whole division pulled together.”
In making this event possible, Rob Miles, executive director of the organization for bat conservation, and Merlin Benner, president of wildlife specialists in Pennsylvania were also key. These two companies were chosen specifically for their skillsets, craftsmanship and price.
The addition of the bat condominium maintains Maryville College’s efforts towards an eco-friendly campus.
“Students should take pride that we have one of the most exquisite college campuses,” Unger said. “If anyone is looking to help the Maryville College community, think small scale first instead of big ecological projects. Begin by recycling and throwing away trash in respective bins. It is an important step to take because if we can’t convince people to stop littering, it’s going to be hard to convince them to save things like the big brown bats and other species.”