BAT HABITAT INVERVENTIONS: CONFRONTING ECOLOGICAL SECURITIES IN THE GREAT LAKES REGION
A survey of the websites and promotional literature for several major parks in the Great Lakes region reveal frequent mention of certain animals. Deer, snakes, bears, wolves, moose, birds, and fish surface reoccurringly, yet other animals of ecological significance are seldom mentioned[i]. Often left out of public acknowledgement is the bat. Admittedly, for the casual observer of nature or even the curious eco-tourist, it is quite difficult to rest one’s gaze upon a bat due to their nature as small, fast, and nocturnal creatures. Even scientists who study bats have had difficulty collecting precise data about them through observation with the naked eye and have recently been developing observation techniques via mediating technologies. For example, Dr. Thomas Kunz, Professor of Biology at Boston University, has pioneered the use of thermal imaging devices in studying bat ecology and behavior[ii]. Perhaps it is because of the bat’s elusiveness that tourists rarely include them on their checklist of animals to see.
The physical characteristics and behavior of bats, however, only partially explain their relative ‘invisibility.’ Arguably, it is also due to the public’s lack of desire to see them. Given the number of fictional tales that vilify the bat – along with exaggerated reports of rabid bat bites – it could be said that their presence conjures notions of fear in the public imagination. This could begin to suggest why a massive ecological crisis such as the rapid spread of White Nose Syndrome – a disease which has been causing bats to die in massive numbers since 2006—has hardly shaken our public conscience.
First spotted in upstate eastern New York in 2006, White Nose Syndrome is a condition in which white fungus grows on bats and prematurely awakens them during hibernation, hypothetically causing them to starve or freeze to death.[iii] It has relentlessly killed a very high percentage of bats in northeastern United States, with “mortality rates approaching 100 percent … reported at some sites,” according to Bat Conservation International.[iv] Since 2009, the disease has started to invade the Great Lakes region (fig. 1)[v], with confirmed cases already in Western New York, Western Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Quebec. Scientists are still rushing to find a solution. In the meantime, caves and mines are being closed to the public, in efforts to slow down the spread of the fungus. [vi]
So what would happen if the Great Lakes region began losing its bat populations in great numbers? Would bats simply become other endangered species on a list of many? The under-acknowledged reality is that bats play a critical role in ensuring the ecological, health, and economic securities of the region. In agriculture, for example, they are natural predators of crop-damaging insects. A massively reduced bat population would begin to affect the status of food security in the region. As a predator of mosquitoes, bats also play a role in preventing the spread of diseases carried by mosquitoes. Although the majority of North America is currently not under pressure to contend with diseases such as Malaria and Yellow Fever, scientists and ecologists who are researching vector-borne diseases have found that areas around the Great Lakes have an environmental “risk factor” that is as high as other locations where these diseases are thriving. For example, according to a series of maps produced by the Spatial Ecology and Epidemiology Research Group, University of Oxford, Department of Zoology (fig. 2)[vii], the vicinities around Lake Ontario and part of Lake Erie— in terms of an array of environmental conditions such as climate—are ripe for welcoming Japanese Encephalitis, a sometimes-fatal disease transmitted by mosquito bites, detected mostly in Southeast Asia. In the realms of both agricultural production and mosquito abatement, the rapid disappearance of bats would most probably spur an increased use of pesticides. Considering the possible declination of agricultural security, the rise in disease risk, and the threat of intensified pesticide use, one can speculate that the region’s health, and therefore economic security, could be at stake.
These kinds of security risks have not gone unnoticed by several government agencies, non-profit organizations, and the science community. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bat Conservation International, for example, have been awarding various research grants and holding symposiums to address the White Nose Syndrome crisis.[viii] Yet, despite recent attention, this current ecological disaster is arguably still unknown to the much of the general public. Bats, and their significance to our ecosystems of security, still remain relatively unnoticed by a more collective public conscience.
To bring these issues further into public consciousness, one could intensify a strategy of fear by underscoring their potentially dire consequences (as I’ve briefly done in the last paragraphs). It is also possible, however, to take another direction and consider a strategy that instead illuminates potential desires. The logics of agriculture and mosquito abatement, for example, not only indicate a need to address crop damage and disease spread, but also pertain to possibilities of tapping into more pleasure-oriented notions of food, recreation, and leisure. After all, in a region that abounds with waterside recreation (and even more potential waterside recreation), the presence of mosquitoes can often ruin otherwise extraordinary experiences. An increase in organic farming strategies — such as including bats as part of a pest control plan — could only begin to intensify the already rich culture of food in the region. In this light, bats also play a significant role in the region’s ecologies of leisure. To invite their presence, then, also underscores the desire to consider the Great Lakes coast as a place for cultural enjoyment.
Clearly, in advocating for bat survival (and proliferation), the role of architects is not the same as the role of scientists. Architects generally do not possess the expertise to meticulously study fungus and systematically track animal health, but they do have the ability to create alternative habitats that can shape a collective attitude toward bats. A question designers might ask is: Rather than focusing only on ways of preventing tourists from entering mines and caves, why not think about how to construct habitats that can, in their own right, exist as cultural attractions and therefore increase public interest in bats? Several examples come to mind in considering this question. In Austin, Texas, crowds gather each evening to watch approximately 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats emerge from under the Congress Bridge. A host of profit-generating recreational activities have stemmed from the public desire to witness this spectacle, including bat-watching cruises, kayaking tours, bicycle tours, and even segway tours.[ix] As another example, a series of 40-foot tall bat towers initially developed by Dr. Charles Campbell in the 1920s now stand as historic monuments and tourist attractions in Texas and Florida. Currently, there is even an effort by the City of Temple Terrace, Florida and the Temple Terrace Preservation Society to reconstruct a tower that was destroyed by arsonists in 1979.[x] A contemporary example is “Animal Wall,” an enormous wall installation designed by artist Gitta Gschwendtner, and built at the boundary between a residential housing tower and a public riverside path in Cardiff Bay, United Kingdom[xi]. While it is true that many smaller, more discreet, and less expensive bat houses are perfectly functional and have successfully attracted bats, they also have a tendency to innocuously blend into the background, thereby furthering the ‘invisibility’ of bats. The projects that I’ve mentioned resist this lack of visibility by intensifying their public presence through the consideration of site, scale, and performance.
It is along these lines that we are currently developing a series of large-scale bat habitation projects that will take on various programs, forms, and materials depending on their installation sites. The first full-scale prototype building, titled “Bat Tower” has been installed near Buffalo, New York, in Griffis Sculpture Park, a 400 acre nature preserve with over 250 sculptures in fields, trails, forests, and ponds[xii]. In the setting of a popularly-visited sculpture park, Bat Tower stands as a kind of monument, perhaps even an unexpected spectacle in the midst of an otherwise serene pondside location. At one level, the project is a prototype to test several conditions: first, how bats will react to and inhabit the structure (to date, two months after completing its installation, bats have already been spotted flying out of tower at dusk), and second, how the structure will hold up in the extreme climate of Western New York. Yet, as a large, sculptural tower, the project could also be understood as a prototype to test the logics of tourism and its effects on ecological advocacy. How will it impact its visitors? Will it make a difference for the many schoolchildren who tour the sculpture park each year? Can it operate as a kind of performative advertisement, as a proof-of-concept for organizations, municipalities, or individuals who might be interested in building larger-scale bat habitation projects?
At this point, you may be wondering: how did this article begin with White Nose Syndrome’s potential impact on ecological securities in the Great Lakes Region and reach a point of discussion about architectural prototypes as a form of advertisement? Quite simply, the role of the prototype in this case is not only to serve as a reproducible object, but more significantly, to act as an instigator for further action. For municipalities, parks, institutions, scientists, and others who are currently researching ways of tackling White Nose Syndrome and bat conservation in general, the functioning prototype begins to open up more possibilities in terms of how they might apply their research toward the natural and built world. For architects and designers, the project aims to generate interest in collaborating with the science community in a continuing effort to introduce experiential dimensions to otherwise aspatial procedures of problem-solving. Lastly, the prototype’s constructed existence and visual presence will (hopefully) entice citizens to consider alternative ways of addressing ‘pest control’ issues. Rather than exterminating bats – and further contributing to the ecological crisis—the project asks: how can we confront our fear of ‘pests’ by creating situations of wonder? Through architectural interventions, we are taking a step toward developing a strategy of conflating our concerns for ecological security with our desires for recreation and pleasure[xiii].
[i] Bruce Peninsula National Parks of Canada (http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/on/bruce/natcul/natcul2.aspx, accessed August 20, 2010) mentions common sightings of: chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, porcupines, snowshoe hares, skunks, white-tailed deer, snakes, and frogs. The website also mentions: black bears, fox, fishers, martins and rattlesnakes as not commonly seen, but present. The Hiawatha National Forest (http://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/!ut/p/c4/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP0os3gDfxMDT8MwRydLA1cj72BTSw8jAwjQL8h2VAQAng7kaQ!!/?ss=110910&navtype=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&cid=null&navid=110340000000000&pnavid=110000000000000&position=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&ttype=activity&pname=Hiawatha%20National%20Forest-%20Nature%20Viewing, accessed August 20, 2010) mentions: whitetail deer, black bears, grey wolves, coyotes, eagles, hawks, rabbits, monarch butterflies, migratory birds, as well as a number of federally threatened or endangered species. Algonquin Provincial Park (http://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/visit/recreational_activites/wildlife-watching-in-algonquin-park.php, accessed August 20, 2010) mentions: birds, fish, moose, white-tailed deer, beavers, black bears, and wolves. Of the national or provincial parks surrounding the Great Lakes, only those associated with the State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) (http://www.dnr.state.mi.us/publications/pdfs/wildlife/viewingguide/, accessed August 20, 2010) include any upfront mention of bats.
[ii] http://www.bu.edu/cecb/bats/kunz-bio/ (accessed August 20, 2010)
[iii] Kevin T. Castle and Paul M. Cryan. “White-nose syndrome in bats: A primer for resource managers.” PARKScience, Volume 27, Number 1, Spring 2010. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service (online publication at: http://www.nature.nps.gov/ParkScience/index.cfm?ArticleID=395&Page=1)
[iv] Bat Conservation International, http://www.batcon.org/index.php/what-we-do/white-nose-syndrome.html (accessed August 18, 2010)
[v] Map created by Joyce Hwang. Information compiled from various maps: “White Nose Syndrome and Bat Hibernacula,” dated April 7, 2009, by Bat Conservation International, retrieved from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/maps.html (accessed August 11, 2010); “Bat White Nose Syndrome (WNS) Occurrence by County/District,” dated June 11, 2010, by Cal Butchkoski, PA Game Commission, http://www.fws.gov/WhiteNoseSyndrome/ (accessed August 11, 2010); and Google maps, http://maps.google.com/maps (accessed August 11, 2010). Also see: “White Nose Syndrome and Bat Hibernation Areas – June 7, 2010” by Bat Conservation International, http://www.batcon.org/index.php/what-we-do/white-nose-syndrome.html (accessed August 21, 2010)
[vi] Alice Rossignol, “White Nose Syndrome Still a Threat to Great Lakes Bats,” Great Lakes Echo, July 2, 2010, http://greatlakesecho.org/2010/07/02/white-nose-syndrome-still-a-threat-to-great-lakes-bats/ (accessed August 18, 2010)
[viii] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, http://www.fws.gov/WhiteNoseSyndrome/index.html and Bat Conservation International, http://www.batcon.org/index.php/what-we-do/white-nose-syndrome/subcategory/468.html (accessed August 19, 2010)
[ix] Austin City Guide, http://www.austincityguide.com/content/congress-bridge-bats-austin.asp (accessed August 20, 2010)
[x] Temple Terrace Bat Tower Reconstruction Project, http://templeterracebattower.com/about.html (accessed August 20, 2010)
[xi] Gitta Gschwendtner, http://www.gittagschwendtner.com/spaces_frameset.html (accessed August 21, 2010) and dezeen, http://www.dezeen.com/2009/08/28/animal-wall-by-gitta-gschwendtner/ (accessed August 21, 2010)
[xii] Ashford Hollow Foundation / Griffis Sculpture Park, http://www.griffispark.org/category/15/griffis_sculpture_park/page/133/History.aspx (accessed August 20, 2010)
[xiii] Created by Joyce Hwang, this map locates the site of the Bat Tower prototype within the Great Lakes Region, and speculates on a potential network of other bat habitation locations, based on an initial interpretation of White Nose Syndrome risk factors.