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The real bat man

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WHO: Bat expert Mark Brigham

WHERE: Millennium Place theatre

WHEN: Thursday, May 22, 7:30 p.m.

If you’re not a big fan of bats, consider this: One thousand of every the 4,000 species of mammal are bats.

Bats can be found almost everywhere; in fact Dr. Mark Brigham estimates that there are probably five or six different species in Whistler.

They’re not blind. In fact, they see really well, and what they can’t see they can easily find using echo-location.

Chances are if you’re not into bats, then you’ve bought into the myths surrounding these remarkable animals. Contrary to popular belief, only one out of 1,000 bat species sucks blood, and they don’t find people too appetizing. They don’t all carry rabies, and they have no interest in flying into your hair. They are not flying rats, and have more in common genetically with primates, like man, than they do with rodents.

Brigham doesn’t resent people for believing all of the myths out there about bats – until about a decade ago, not much was known about bats, because biologists couldn’t study what they couldn’t see.

"Bat research is light years behind bird research, for example," says Brigham, who has spent more than 20 years studying the creatures. Although they are hard to spot, they are not hard to hear. Bats, who use echolocation to find airborne insects and navigate in the dark, are constantly "screeching their little voice boxes out." While it’s too high-pitched for people to hear, new technologies can pick up the sounds.

Once the presentation and question period on bats has wrapped up, Brigham will lead a group outside to search for the creatures using his listening device.

Brigham admits that he didn’t come by his love for bats honestly. When he was a student taking field biology, it was the only course he could take.

"I was just thrilled by the creatures, and the person who taught the course was fascinating. After that I was hooked," he says.

Now Brigham shares his home passion for the animals, sharing his research and other findings with the public whenever he gets the chance. He speaks at schools and hosts presentations at provincial parks that can attract over 150 people. Even when he’s "preaching to the converted," speaking at naturalist meetings, he says people will come away with a new understanding and respect for bats.

"To tell you the truth I wasn’t that interested in bats before I went to Mark’s presentation – I was one of those people who thought they were just flying rats," says Dave Waldron, a sustainability consultant who helped to bring Brigham to Whistler. "Boy, was I wrong. Mark made those little critters come to life with his lively, fascinating presentation."

The significance of bats from an ecological point of view is only now starting to be understood, says Brigham. In areas like Whistler, bats typically live in hollowed out trees, and he believes they may play a significant role in nourishing forests.

"These little things fly around all night, usually over open water, and can eat their own weight in insects every day. When they come back to the forest they poop all over the place, and bat waste is called guano. Guano is packed with nitrogen, which is the one limiting factor as to how plants and trees can grow. They are, in a sense, fertilizing the forests," Brigham says.

Although he is based in Saskatchewan, he has studied bats on Vancouver Island, in the Lower Mainland and in the Okanagan Valley. He is not familiar with the bats in Whistler, but is confident that he will be able to locate them this Thursday.

Brigham’s talk is presented by the Whistler Naturalists. Admission is by donation.

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