In a creative new effort to track Chicago's wild bat population, the Lincoln Park Zoo is asking you to keep an eye out for them. If you're thinking, "we don't have BATS in Chicago," I'll direct you to the photo above, which I took outside my Lincoln Park apartment last month. There are plenty of bats in Chicagoland, even downtown, and they're actually pretty cute and helpful (they save the U.S. agriculture industry at least $3 billion a year in insect-control costs).
So, why not become a vigilante biologist by sending any photos or information you have on bat sightings in the city to firstname.lastname@example.org. Biodiversity specialists at the zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute would like to study the local bat population to see exactly how many of Illinois' 8 known bat species are living in the area, after finding at least 4 of them this past summer using tiny microphones hidden near the zoo to listen for their distinctive vocalizations.
The 4 species found thus far are big brown bats, eastern red bats, silver-haired bats, and hoary bats (which is probably the most unfortunately-named bat on earth). Unfortunately, bats in eastern North America have been dying by the millions over the last decade thanks to white-nose syndrome, a nasty fungal disease with no known cure that is quickly spreading to the west.
Scientists here in Chicago want to see if the disease has spread to Illinois, as recent cases have cropped up in Indiana. Mortality rates have been recorded as high as 95% in populations in eastern states like New York and Pennsylvania. The infection causes hibernating bats to wake up too early and too often, which causes them to starve without food sources in the winter.
You may not necessarily see bats very often on your daily commute, but believe me, they're there. Many local bats may have already flown south for the winter, but some prefer to ride it out here. Keep your eyes peeled and email the zoo if you see any bats in your area so that they can zero in on groups to study.
However, although rabid bats are relatively rare (6% at most), if you see a bat being active during the day, in a location you wouldn't expect, or unable to fly and easy to approach, it may be infected. So don't poke it or anything, okay?