At the beginning of the semester, construction in Anderson Hall revealed that Maryville has some residents that no one knew about – roughly 1,000 to 2,000 bats.
This large, nocturnal group was living in the belfry of now-deposed Anderson Hall. The belfry is the highest point on campus, above the tree line, dark, and lined with rafters that make perfect roosts for the huge colony that had chosen it as their home.
Dr. Dave Unger, a carnivore biologist and associate biology professor at Maryville, has been intimately involved with the process of dealing with the bats and where they will live.
“What we’re attempting to do is to provide them with an alternate dwelling,” Unger said.
While it would be possible for the bats to roost in one of the other buildings on campus, the College has purchased ten “bat houses” to put up around campus in order to avoid this.
Each house is expected to hold around 200 to 300 hundred bats. The houses will be hoisted onto 20 foot poles, with around two to three feet buried in the ground, so the poles will sit about 17 to 18 feet in the air.
“The bat houses on poles will primarily be in the orchards in the College Woods,” Unger said. “It’s a good spot. It’s open. It’s near water.”
Unger said that the bat houses are expected to be up by the end of November and the college expects to also receive a “bat condo” – a bigger housing that could hold a group of around.
Merlin Benner, a former colleague of Unger and a freelance wildlife biologist who offered to help the College by building the condo.
Maryville has welcomed two kinds of bats. One group is made up of big brown bats and another is a much smaller group of free-tailed bats. These bats are living together peacefully, but the size of their group is especially uncommon.
“Most of the time, big brown bats will come into a colony of a couple dozen to a couple hundred. So, this was a really big colony compared to what normally happens,” Unger said.
Unger explains that one of the reasons why this colony is so large has much to do the fact that it is a maternal colony. This group of bats is comprised of parents and offspring that are all huddled together, using body heat to “allow for proper development of the pups.”
The money for this project came from funds for Anderson Hall’s construction.
“The way the administration looked at it is ‘we’re going to have to spend money on bats no matter what, so why don’t we invest some of that money in conservation and some of that money in providing them with something,’” Unger said.
In order to prevent the bats from re-housing in Anderson once construction is completed, the college has put up one-way doors and mesh screens on the areas where the bats could enter. What this means is that the bats are allowed to leave the belfry, but they are barred from getting back in.
“This is a marvelous act of conservation and sustainability on the administration and the institution’s part,” Unger said. “I mean, they deserve a great deal of appreciation for their forethought and their willingness to work with a crazy biologist to put bat houses up.”
Unger said he also looks forward to the opportunities that will exist for teaching and research on campus.
“They’re going to provide a living, breathing teaching tool,” Unger said. “Our hope is that these boxes and the condo will be colonized such that people will be able to enjoy watching the bats come out and go in and do their thing. That’s the hope.”
With a colony of this uncommonly large size, Unger said that several interested research groups have approached the Natural Sciences department.
“We’ve been contacted by the University of Tennessee Batworking Group…And I was contacted from a research as far away as Indiana – a woman by the name of Joy O’Keefe, the director for the Center of Bat Research at Indiana State University.”
Unger said that the response has been “100% positive.” Parties are contacting the College with questions anywhere from about what to do for their personal bat population around their home to if they can come assist with the re-homing of the bats on campus.
After WBIR Channel 10 came on campus to record a video story, Unger said the community helped to spread this story to researchers on social media.
The importance of this project extends beyond Anderson Hall construction.
“Bats are under such environmental assault right now. They’re having massive die-offs because of white nose syndrome, there’s habitat loss. There’s not any old-growth forest,” Unger said. “So, a lot of the reason why this is so important is not just because we had bats in Anderson, it was because they need help. Bats need help.”
This work towards providing Maryville’s bats with a new home will help to sustain their population for years to come.
“[In] the strategic plan of the college, a third of it speaks to sustainability,” Unger said. “Sustainability isn’t just you know, saving money by turning the lights off, it’s the sustainability of our ecosystems.”