Texas love bats
Bats fly out from under Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge. (Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau)
Texas has a close relationship with the bat.
In 1995, the Mexican free-tailed bat became the state’s official flying mammal. In 2010, the state capital, Austin, adopted the bat as its official animal emblem. While historically, bats have had a bad reputation around the world, in Texas, these nocturnal cave dwellers are loved and cherished.
Popular myths have pegged bats as blind, disease-carrying bloodsuckers. In reality, the flying mammals can see well, are very clean and feast primarily on insects. Only three bat species, out of more than 1,200 worldwide, eat blood from animals, and those same species have an enzyme in their saliva that can be used as a medicinal blood-clot dissolver to treat strokes in humans.
The bats’ popularity in Texas has a lot to do with their diet. Bats eat mosquitoes and insects that destroy agricultural crops. A 2011 study that was published in Science magazine study found that insect-eating bats save the US agricultural industry between $3 billion and $53 billion in pest control costs each year. There are also nectar-eating bats, which serve as pollinators for plants including agave, cactus, avocado, balsa wood, cashews and cloves; and fruit-eating bats, which disperse seeds that help regenerate forests.
As well as being worth millions of dollars to the Texan agriculture industry, these mammals are worth millions of dollars to the state’s tourism industry. Texas is home to the world’s largest known bat colony (in Comal County), and the world’s largest urban bat colony (in Austin). Bat watching is a common activity, with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offering more bat-viewing sites than anywhere else in the US.
It comes as little surprise, then, that bat species are protected, and that batty attractions can be found all over the vast southern state:
Congress Avenue Bridge
Every summer night in Austin, 100,000 people watch as 1.5 million bats fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the evening flights garner $10 million in tourism revenue annually. Each August, the free Bat Fest celebrates the city’s urban bat colony with live music, food and bat-watching.
Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve
Located by the James River in Mason, Texas, this bat colony is home to around five million Mexican free-tailed bats. Visitors can see the bats go out at night or return to the colony at sunrise, from May to September. The summer months can be an exciting time to visit as this is when pregnant female bats give birth to single pups.
Moody Gardens on Galveston Island is a large complex comprising science exhibits, an aquarium, a white-sand beach, an IMAX cinema, a golf course, a horticultural therapy facility and a hotel and spa. One of its main attractions, the Rainforest Pyramid, is home to 1,000 species of plants and animals from all over the world, all contained in a 10-storey, pyramid-shaped glass building. In addition to an impressive exhibit of American bats, visitors will see rainbow boas, giant otters, ocelots and sloths.
In Caprock Canyons State Park, set among beautiful formations of exposed red sandstone, an abandoned railroad tunnel called Clarity Tunnel is home to 500,000 bats between late April and mid-October. About 100 miles southeast of Amarillo, Caprock Canyons is also home to the largest herd of bison in the Texas state park system. The park has a number of hiking and biking trails within its 15,000 acres, including the Trailway, converted from the old railroad system.
Just outside of San Antonio, Bracken Bat Cave houses 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats – making it the biggest bat colony in the world. In order to visit this compelling nature reserve, tourists must become members of Bat Conservation International, the non-governmental organisation which manages the cave and its surrounding 697 acres of ranch land.