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Local company builds artificial cave for ailing bats

Mary E. Hinds maryhinds@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 10:06 PM

A local company has created an artificial cave for bats to help scientists combat a disease decimating the population.

Oldcastle Precast in Lebanon, manufacturer of precast and polymer concrete products, completed an award-winning project, but it's not your usual concrete structure. The company won the National Precast Concrete Association's first-place Underground Cup award for the Bellamy Bat Cave project. The creative use of precast awards recognize those projects promoting the innovative advantages of precast concrete.

The cave, which is now in place, was assembled from prefabricated concrete sections. At 78 feet long and 16 feet wide, it is about the size of a single-wide mobile home. It has an 11-foot ceiling textured so bats can cling to it. After it was put in place, most of the cave was then covered with at least 4 feet of soil. All that can be seen from the surface is an air intake that serves as the bat entrance.

Nick Krue and Larry Taylor with Oldcastle Precast said a lot of thought and work went into designing and building the cave.

"We did the bat cave for The Nature Conservancy," Krue said. "I approached Larry about the feasibility of building it, trucking it in and placing it."

Taylor said placement was crucial to the project.

"We placed it adjacent to the natural opening of the Bellamy Caves," Taylor said. "We took it in sections to the field, reassembled it and buried it."

The pair stressed while they did make the artificial cave, they don't have a lot of knowledge about bats.

The Nature Conservancy has an unofficial Batman in Cory Holliday with the Tennessee chapter of the organization. Holliday knows his bats, and he has been busy getting the artificial cave ready and luring bats into it.

Holliday said once a fungus is discovered it can take years, but it will eventually wipe out all the bats in a cave. That is something that is not in the best interest of people. While bats are not the most attractive creatures, they do play a vital role in the environment and in helping people by eating a lot of bugs.

"It varies by species and by the time of the year, but a pregnant or nursing bat eats their own weight in bugs every day," he said, adding while a bat doesn't weight much, the number of bugs eaten is multiplied by millions of bats. "It's not just insects that bite people they eat, but also forrest pests and crop pests."

The artificial bat cave is deep in the Tennessee woods near Clarksville, and experts want to see if it can be a blueprint for saving bats dying by the millions from a fungus spreading across North America.

Now the world’s first artificial bat cave has seen its first winged visitors. The nearly 80-foot-long concrete chamber was built to protect bats against white-nose syndrome, a disease named for a white fungus that infects the skin of the muzzle, ears and wings of hibernating bats.

In the six years since bats with the syndrome were discovered dead or dying in a cave near Albany, N.Y., Holliday estimates more than 7 million infected animals from seven species have died. In the northeastern U.S., 85 percent of hibernating bats have died from the disease, which has spread rapidly through Canada and New England, into the Mid-Atlantic and through most of Appalachia, including Tennessee.

Given bats eat so many pests, they are vital for human health and agriculture.

"If the bats die, we're in trouble," Holliday said.

Scientists were confounded by the rapid spread of the disease and its mortality rate, which is higher than has ever been observed in wildlife disease. This fungus is particularly hard to treat because it invades deeper layers of the skin than most other fungi that attack mammals.

The $300,000 project by The Nature Conservancy is believed to be the first manmade hibernating structure for bats in the wild. Unlike natural caves, it will be cleaned annually to keep the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome from reaching lethal levels.

To help ensure bats find the place, the artificial cave was placed near a natural cave with an established hibernation population of gray bats. The plan is to coax some of them to the new digs by emitting ultra-sonic bat calls on loudspeakers.

Holliday said a few bats are making the cave home.

"We've had some bats use it for short-term roosting, but none have used it for an entire winter," he said, adding if they can get bats to use the cave long term, the project will be a success.

"With this project, we hope to save a subset of bats," Holliday said. "If it is successful, we'll build a lot more caves."

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