Where are the Alaska bats
By NED ROZELL
October 09, 2008
Eileen Weatherby of Fairbanks wrote in mid-September that her
cat carried in a surprise one morning. Instead of the usual vole,
her cat had captured a bat.
"I was startled because I thought bats in the Interior were
pretty rare," she wrote in an email message.
Eileen is right. Alaska is the far, frigid edge of bats' existence.
But they do live in Alaska, in places with trees, perhaps as
far north as Fort Yukon. The palm-size creatures are now, in
mid-October, avoiding below-freezing temperatures by either hibernating
or migrating southward. Scientists aren't quite sure which strategy
far-north bats employ.
A little brown bat
in the Yukon having an identification tag installed by a biologist.
Photo courtesy Tom Jung.
"I've had people tell me they know where bats hibernate
in winter," said Doreen Parker McNeill, who works at the
Alaska Department of Fish & Game and who studied bats for
her degree work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Keith
Price of Salcha once said he saw them hibernating in the utility
corridors at Eielson Air Force Base," she said.
Price was an interested bat-watcher who shared his fondness for
bats with scientists. The longtime resident of Salcha once stored
his potatoes in a heated Quonset hut. Little brown bats, the
only species of bat identified in interior Alaska, liked the
hut so much that about 200 of them once lived in it, making the
maternity bat colony there the farthest north in North America.
Price invited scientists to visit his barn and study the bats.
Among other things, they found that Alaska bats, both in Southeast
and in Salcha, ate spiders.
"I hadn't seen anything in the literature about bats eating
spiders," Parker McNeill said.
Alaska bats also eat moths, no-see-ums, and other flying insects,
"A colony of 500 little brown bats can easily consume 500,000
insects in a single night," Jack Whitman wrote in an Alaska
Department of Fish & Game's Wildlife Notebook entry.
Little brown bats are the only species of bat found north of
Southeast Alaska, where in 2005 and 2006, Julia Boland
then an Oregon State graduate student captured California
bats, long-legged bats, and Keen's bats. She also saw and heard
silver-haired bats. In addition, Boland found bats hibernating
in caves of Southeast Alaska, but what do bats do farther north,
where winter temperatures are too cold and dry to sustain their
"In the Lower 48, banded hibernating bats were found 400
miles away (later in the year)," Parker McNeill said. "I
know a little brown bat can migrate that far, but to say they'd
cross the Alaska Range and be flying over a just-opened pond
on May 8th (as someone reported to her) does seem pretty far-fetched.
They could probably do it, but I don't know."
Parker McNeill thinks that we may subsidize hibernating bats
with our heated structures; a man in Nenana called her once to
report he heard bats within his walls all winter. Brian Lawhead
of Alaska Biological Research, Inc. remembered a story of a person,
also from Nenana, who was pullling firewood from a snow-covered
pile when a bat fell out. The bat warmed up, and then flew off,
suggesting it may have been hibernating under the snow. But such
tales are rare in the far north.
"Hibernating bats have not been found in the Yukon,"
wrote Tom Jung, a Yukon government biologist who lives in Whitehorse.
"Some Yukon bats migrate in the spring as indicated by groups
of bats observed passing over the St. Elias Mountains and glaciers,
perhaps returning from coastal hibernacula."
Valerie Baxter lives with her husband Dan on a farm in North
Pole. Bats live at the farm in summer, but "the first time
we get a hard frost, we quit hearing them," she said. "And
their scat deposition drops off we just figure they're
The mystery endures. Are bats among us now in northern Alaska,
somehow keeping their wee selves from freezing solid, or are
they now headed south, beating their tiny wings above the blue
ice of glaciers?
"There's a great PhD project there for somebody," Lawhead
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation
with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [firstname.lastname@example.org]
is a science writer at the institute.
E-mail your news &
photos to email@example.com
Publish A Letter in SitNews Read Letters/Opinions
Contact the Editor
Stories In The News