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An Old Column About Bats In Key West

THE BUZZ ABOUT BATS
From the Key West Citizen
August 5, 2002


BY MARK HEDDEN


All eyes were on a small gray hole surrounding a drainpipe high on the building's southwest corner. The sun was setting. The mosquitoes were starting to bite.

Finally the first bat emerged from the hole, leapt into the air and took off for the tree line. Soon a group of two or three other bats followed, then a group of five or six, leaping into the air like paratroopers and then buzzing off like wind-up toys, seeming to go three directions at once. They kept coming for close to 20 minutes.

"You could set your watch by them," said Tony Barosso, the bats' most dedicated and regular observer.

The bats are members of the species Molossus molossus tropidorhynchus. There are about 1,200 to 2,000 of them living between the walls of the Monroe County School Board's storage building in the 1200 block of United Street.

They're also known as Pallus mastiff bats, Cuban house bats, rat bats and velvety freetailed bats. Molossus mollusus is common throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Molossus mollusus tropidorhynchus is an endemic Cuban subspecies and that island's most abundant city-dwelling bat.

How long they've been in Key West, and how they got here, can only be speculated upon.

"People tend not to notice bats," said Stephen Humphrey, dean of the University of Florida's College of Natural Resources and Environment.

"If you go out to watch the twilight, most people come in before the bats begin to fly. I've run into this my whole life. People have bats in their attic all the time. They just don't know it," he said.

Humphrey admires bats enough to have bought property that contains both a cave and a population of bats numbering in the hundreds of thousands in an area outside Gainesville.

"No scientists think that these bats are migratory, but it is common for bats that are colonial to disperse during the nonmaternal season and then reform the colony when the females are pregnant and stay together while they are lactating," he said.

Which is why the bats might seem like newcomers to the neighborhood.

"The bats probably flew here themselves," said Phil Frank, manager of the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. "But there is always the remote possibility that these are the descendants of Richter Clyde Perky's bats," referring to the bats that may or may not have lived in the bat tower Perky build on Sugarloaf Key in 1929 in an early attempt at mosquito control.

Frank said it was long believed by the scientific community that there were no resident bats in the Florida Keys.

"But being a local, everybody was always hearing these rumors about bats. And finally I got lucky," said Frank.

In 1996 a woman living on Stock Island called him and complained that bats had taken over her attic.

"It was unique, because not only was this the first documented real-live occurrence of bats in the Keys, it was also the first record of this species in the United States. It's not often you find a new critter in the U.S.A. right under people's noses, so to speak. It was kind of cool," said Frank.

Frank later wrote two peer-reviewed papers on the bats, and said he still drives around with a bat detector - a small electronic device that can listen in on bats echolocation signals - in his car.

"Once people educate themselves that the bats aren't really harmful, they seem to think they're pretty cool," said Frank.

Bats may be one of the most misunderstood members of the animal kingdom.

For the record: They are mammals, they are not rodents. They don't suck blood - well, three species do, but they all live in Central America. They're not blind, they don't get stuck in people's hair and they are very rarely rabid. (About .5 percent to 1 percent are, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, which also points out that you are more likely to be struck by lightning or killed by a power mower than bitten by a rabid bat.)

Bats consume between 1,000 and 3,000 insects a night, up to half their body weight. They bear their young live, have fur and echolocate to find their way in the dark, having a sense of hearing so sensitive that they can detect a single hair floating in the air in front of them. The Molossus molossus is two to four inches long and sleeps clutched to the wall, not hanging upside down.

The only downside of a resident bat population seems to be the guano, which, if left unchecked, can slowly fill up a room. In the school board building on United Street, though, it spills out through a small crack in the base of the wall in which the bats live. A box installed below the crack catches the small, dry pellets so they can be scooped up and removed easily.

Tony Barosso does the chore regularly. He's not squeamish about such things. His plumbing company's shirts bear the slogan "The No. 1 Man In The No. 2 Business."

And the guano is something of a commodity, known to horticulturists as one of the world's great fertilizers. The Key West Garden Club has already asked for the first shipment.

The parking lot, which is on the backside of the building on Seminary Street, has unexpectedly become one of Key West's wildlife-viewing hot spots. A dozen or so people gather nightly to see the show. More astute members of the crowd have noted that there are three albino members of the colony.

"It's liking watching fireworks or something. You're waiting to go 'Ooh, ahh,'" said bakery owner Kurt Matarazzo on his first trip to see the bats.

"So this will be the new Key West tradition," said Beth Scribner, a Duval Street merchant. "Instead of going to Mallory Square, people will come here."

Barosso's wife, Sue, thinks he's getting a bit obsessed.

"He gets up every morning at five o'clock and says 'I've got to go see my bats,'" she said. "I go back to bed."

Barosso denies this, saying that since he's learned the bats' schedule - out at 8:15 p.m. in the evening, back at 6:30 a.m. in the morning - he usually gets out of bed around 6:00 a.m.

"I get up, I go to La Dichosa to get my coffee and I come back and watch them," he said. "I like it the mornings better. It's prettier. They all gather and they swirl around, waiting to get in. Two or three are always trying to get into the hole at the same time so they bump each other out of the way."