Bats in the Bay State

“Bats in the Bay State,” a discussion led by ecologist Zara Dowling, was held Tuesday at the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DeLUCA

Northfield Bird Club hosts local ecologist for discussion on bat species


Staff Writer

Greenfield Recorder: 10/25/2019 6:08:12 PM

NORTHFIELD — An educational program in the spirit of Halloween had the Northfield Bird Club going a bit batty on Tuesday.

“Bats in the Bay State” featured Zara Dowling, a local ecologist, leading a discussion on a different kind of flying fauna: bats. Dowling spoke at at the Northfield Mountain

Recreation and Environmental Center about her research on bats and educated attendees on their bat neighbors, many of whose haunts and habits are still largely unknown. She also touched on the technologies and research tools used to gain insight on bat behavior, local species and the threats they face.

“There are over 1,200 bat species that we know about,” Dowling said. “That means over 20 percent of mammals that we know of are bats.”

Dowling touched on the basics of bat anatomy. She pointed out that the basic bone structure of a bat’s wing is similar to that of the human hand. The wing contains four long fingers — the index, middle, ring and little finger — inside of the wing membrane, with a small thumb located on their wrist joint. Bats fall under the mammal category of chiroptera, which means “hand wing.”

Dowling explained that flight, while an efficient form of travel, uses a lot of energy and requires a strong metabolism. Their hearts also have a great range and ability to speed up and slow down as needed. When in hibernation, their heart can beat as low as four beats per minute. When in flight, it can get up to 1,100 beats per minute.

“Bats have the largest hearts relative to their body size of any mammal because they have to power that flight,” she said.

She noted that many people think of small mammals as short-lived. However, bats can live for a long time one brown bat species has been recorded to live up to 28 years.

Varied species of bats around the world rely on different diets and survival instincts. She pointed out that fruit bats are often considered cute because of their large eyes. They have these large eyes, she explained, because they use their sight instead of echo-location to find food. While fruit bats have lost their echo-location skill, plenty of other bat species have kept this signature ability.

According to Dowling, there are eight main species of bats found in Massachusetts. The big brown bat, little brown bat, Northern long-eared myotis, hoary bat (Dowling’s favorite species), eastern red bat, tricolored bat, eastern small-footed myotis and the silver haired bat. The eastern small-footed myotis, Dowling said, only weighs as much as two pennies and like to live in rocky slopes, like Acadia National Park in Maine.

The big brown bat seeks cooler, dryer conditions for hibernation, which leads them to hibernate in people’s attics, Dowling said. Hibernating in dryer conditions has helped this species to avoid being affected by white-nose syndrome.

“This is a big conservation issue for hibernating bats,” she said.

This disease, which is thought to have been brought over by a cave explorer from Spain, is a fungal infection that affects hibernating bats. It is considered one of the worst wildlife diseases in modern times, having killed millions of bats across North America. It is a two-part problem, as the fungus thrives in cool, damp conditions where many bats hibernate, and while bats are hibernating their metabolism is so low that their immune system is too weak to fight off the infection.

White-nose syndrome has greatly impacted the northern long-eared population, which has declined between 80 and 90 percent as a result of the disease. While there has been some increase in population recently, it has still caused them to be listed as an endangered species.

Dowling received her doctorate in wildlife ecology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studied the effects of offshore wind energy development on bats.

The sound and movement of large wind turbines has had an impact on bat populations as they have trouble navigating around them and collide with the wind turbines. Based on her studies of coastal and off-shore movements of bats, she said little brown bats can travel up to 500 kilometers to move to hibernation sites. Dowling’s research on the full impact on bat species and their migratory patterns around New England is ongoing.

Northfield Bird Club welcomes members

“Bats in the Bay State” was co-sponsored by the Northfield Bird Club, Athol Bird and Nature Club and the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center. To become a member of the Northfield Bird Club, attend a meeting or walk, and provide your name and email address. There are no fees, though donations are accepted to cover operating costs. More information can be found on the club’s website at:

The next bird club program is an illustrated introduction to winter bird-feeding on Nov. 16, at 10:30 a.m. at the Dickinson Memorial Library. Learn how to identify birds at your feeder, interesting behavior to look for, where to locate feeders and which types of seeds attract which birds.

Then, on Dec. 10, at 5:30 p.m. at the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center, researchers will share their studies on a nearby winter crow roost.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.