Zoo conducts experiment on preserving Va. state bat

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010

From the outset, the National Zoo said, it knew it was risky to work with the Virginia big-eared bat, the odd-looking winged creature that happens to be Virginia's state bat.

But looking for a way to help the species survive a disease threat, the zoo set up quarters for 40 of the animals at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. The idea was to learn how to keep at least some of the bats alive in case wild populations were devastated.

But efforts to maintain the big-eared bats in confinement "have proved challenging," and only 11 remain alive, the zoo said Friday.

A big problem was getting the animals to eat.

Normally, the big-eared bats dine in flight, picking juicy insects out of the air. In the experiment, some bats learned to eat mealworms (insect larva) from pans. But even some of them failed to thrive.

"They stress easily and do not do well in captivity," said Jeremy Coleman, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a sponsor of the Zoo's project.

In recent years, some wild bat populations have been imperiled by a new threat: white-nose syndrome. The disease has spread to Virginia from the Northeast, said Coleman, the service's national white-nose coordinator.

The Virginia big-eared bat's susceptibility has not been confirmed but is suspected, he said.

Although the project was "high-risk," the zoo said, the lessons learned will help keep the big-eared bats' populations going in years to come.

The Virginia big-eared bat became the state bat in 2005 and was chosen in part for its name.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company