Bat Count 2005
Southwest Oklahoma
February 12, 2005
Rob Jagnow, Becky Hunsinger, and Mark Hunsinger

Mangum, Oklahoma: population 2,758. Not exactly a bustling metropolis. But if you want to count bats (and boy howdy, do I ever), this is the place to be. Every February, a handful of devoted cavers from the Central Oklahoma Grotto spread out across the state to take a census of the bat population. During this time of the year, the bats are in hibernation, so we go into the caves with large populations and count the bats where they roost.

Inevitably, whenever I tell anyone that I'm participating in a Bat Count, they reply, "So is that like, 1 bat... 2 bats... 3 bats...?" That's not too far from the truth, but it's actually more akin to, "18 inches by 12 inches myotis... Three single pipistrells... One plecotus..." Specifically, in the caves near Mangum, there are three common bat species. The most common, cave myotis (Myotis velifer), usually roosts in groups, sometimes packed together with more than 200 individuals per square foot. Eastern pipistrelles (Pipistrellus subflavus) roost alone and are smaller than the myotis with light-colored fur. Townsend's big-eared bats (Corynorhinus townsendii) also roost alone. These bats have long ears that they may roll up as a mechanism for regulating their body temperature. When both ears are tucked down next to the body, this species can be difficult to distinguish from the myotis.

South entrance South entrance
Lone Myotis velifer Lone cave myotis (Myotis velifer)
Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) covered with dew Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) covered with dew
Taking measurements to calibrate packing rates of Myotis velifer Taking measurements to calibrate packing rates of Myotis velifer [Full Resolution]
[Full Resolution]
Bats are, without a doubt, one of the world's most maligned and misunderstood creatures. The reality is that they're smart, docile, and a vital component of the ecosystem considering that they consume 30-50% of their own body weight in insects each night.

Unfortunately, many people are driven by ill-founded fears. During a previous bat count, we encountered a couple of cowboys near the cave. One was carrying a long metal rod, and the other had a large white bucket. Intrigued, we asked what they were up to.

"We're catchin' rattlesnakes for next week's round-up. What y'all doin' with all them helmets and lights?"

"We're studying bats."

"Y'all go in there with all them bats?! Yer crazy!"

That same year, upon entering the cave, we found hundreds of bats that had been torched off the ceiling. They lay on the ground, dead or dying, and squealing out in pain. This highlights one of the unfortunate reasons why monitoring the population is so important.

Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus)
Flying Myotis velifer Flying Myotis velifer
Cave crayfish Cave crayfish
The cave that our team chose to visit is known as Jester. It's the longest known gypsum cave in the western hemisphere with more than 5 miles of surveyed passages. The cave is very familiar to Mom, who spent 134 hours in the cave, mapping the narrow passageways in the mid-80s. The name comes from the neighboring town of Jester, which, up until the mid-90s, actually had inhabitants.

On Saturday morning, Mom, Mark and I were instructed to meet up with John Talbot and John VanDyke at "the gravel pile," which is as good a landmark as any in a maze of indistinguishable unlabeled farm roads. As it turns out, the gravel pile doesn't actually exist anymore. Who knows how long it's been gone - months... maybe years. But in the absence of any other discernable landmark, it's still "the gravel pile," and the cavers who come here year after year know how to find it.

From there, we walked to the far south end of the cave, and subsequently visited each of the major cave entrances where bats are expected to congregate. These population surveys have been taking place for long enough that we not only know where to expect certain species of bats, but we have even come to recognize a few individuals that hibernate in the same spot every year.

So how many bats did we actually count? 203 pipistrelles, 17 big-eared, and 17,839 myotis. (I bet that's more than you expected.)

Comparison of Townsend's big-eared (Corynorhinus townsendii) with ears tucked down and Myotis velifer Comparison of Townsend's big-eared (Corynorhinus townsendii) with ears tucked down and Myotis velifer
Corynorhinus (top) and Myotis (bottom) Corynorhinus (top) and Myotis (bottom)
Becky at Train Tunnel entrance Becky at Train Tunnel entrance
Mark, Becky & Rob Mark, Becky & Rob

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.