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August 23, 2013

Orphaned Bats Teach About Species

South Florida Wildlife Center raises juvenile bats for the first time

  • Three juvenile bats are fed by hand. Antonia Gardner/SFWC

  • One of the orphaned bats relaxes after feeding and cleaning. SFWC

Bats are often the subject of nightmares, but South Florida Wildlife Center (SFWC) seeks to change that by learning from its recent bat patients.

Upon arrival, the Center's three current juvenile Northern Yellow Bats had an average weight of just eight grams—only about one-fourth of one ounce! As is common for many of the orphaned wildlife the Center receives, the bats' parents were killed in a landscaping incident.

Previously, bat patients would have been transferred to another, better equipped, facility for rearing. This time, a generous donors stepped in to underwrite a temporary flight cage built by a skilled volunteer to serve as a home for the young bats before they were transferred to an outdoor enclosure. In the future, an even larger flight cage will allow the Center to provide more space for young bats.

Donate in-kind to help care for more bats in the future»

The Center's three bat patients have now more than doubled in size. However, getting them to that point brought several challenges:

  • Each bat species has its own dietary needs and housing requirements, making it impossible to generalize across species.

  • Feeding is time intensive, as infant bats are fed every two to three hours and have their faces cleaned with a moist cotton swab following each meal.

  • Infant bats do not intuitively know to drink water, and must be taught to do so. Staff attached bowls to the walls of their outdoor enclosure, and then encouraged them to drink by wetting their muzzles in the bowls.

  • Bats take longer to learn how to fly than birds, and since individuals mature at different rates close monitoring is essential to know when it's time for release.

Another great challenge is knowing when to transition the bats from formula to insects, of which a grown bat in the wild can eat thousands a day. Research shows that insect skeletons are critical to the development of the bats' teeth and digestive tracts. Now, in their large outdoor enclosure, the young bats have no shortage of insects to eat. However, until they are fully capable of finding all their food on their own, staff continue to feed them a liquid diet three times a day.

SFWC Veterinarian Antonia Gardner admits that bats, so far, have proven to be the most work-intensive animals to hand-rear. However, she and other staff have networked with other rehabilitators to share knowledge about this important species.

About one-fifth of all mammal species are bats, and they are extremely common in South Florida. Clashes with humans pose a risk to their population, and the impact on the ecosystem of dwindling numbers of bats has yet to be determined. South Florida Wildlife Center hopes to learn more about the role of bats and how to successfully rehabilitate them. As Dr. Gardner emphasizes, "The truth is so important—to find out what we would be losing."

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