Night Of The Cemetery Bats And you thought cemeteries were for the dead. A nighttime census of leafy Bellefontaine in St. Louis reveals at least two species of bats. Parklike graveyards provide key habitat for urban wildlife.

Night Of The Cemetery Bats

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We're going to spend a little time now in a cemetery in the interest of science. Veronique LaCapra of St. Louis Public Radio mustered up her courage and went out to the cemetery at night.

VERONIQUE LACAPRA, BYLINE: I had visited St. Louis's Bellefontaine Cemetery before, but never at night.

It is dark. There's just about a half a moon visible in the sky and - wait a minute. What's that over there? I can see eerie lights and strange, shadowy figures moving among the grave stones.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Look. There comes one of them now.

VONA KUCZYNSKA: Hi, my name is Vona Kuczynska, and I'm a wildlife biologist. And I'm a student at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

LACAPRA: OK. Those mysterious lights? - headlamps. And the ghosts or zombies? - just researchers. They're part of an effort to try to get an idea of the range of wildlife that's in the cemetery. Scientists have already studied birds here. Tonight, some people are looking at moths. Kuczynska is focusing on bats.

KUCZYNSKA: When you're holding a bat in your hand, you just see how beautiful they are. And they have so much personality.

LACAPRA: What do you mean? Wait, wait, wait, wait. So bats have personalities?

KUCZYNSKA: Bats absolutely have personalities.

LACAPRA: Some species, she tells me, are really gentle and don't seem to mind being handled.

KUCZYNSKA: Whereas other bats - usually bigger bats - are way more aggressive. And they'll try to bite you and escape and do all these things.

LACAPRA: Kuczynska's in the cemetery trying to find out what kinds of bats are flying around here.


LACAPRA: That's a big brown bat complaining about getting snagged in one of the nets Kuczynska and her helpers set up before sunset. They look something like oversized volleyball nets, only with much finer mesh. But very few bats actually get caught in them. That's because bats use a kind of biological sonar called echolocation to avoid obstacles and find their insect prey, even in the dark. So Kuczynska is also using a special bat detector.


LACAPRA: To show me how it works, she carries the big brown bat toward a small device that's lying on the ground. It's about the size and shape of a paperback book. It's called an AnaBat.


KUCZYNSKA: And so the AnaBat is recording these noises and playing them back to us in a range that we can hear. And it allows us to see if there's activity - bat activity - in the area.

LACAPRA: Now, it turns out that cemeteries aren't just great places for spooky things like bats.

SETH MAGLE: I mean, I suspect that most of the species that are found in cities are probably also using cemeteries.

LACAPRA: Seth Magle, who directs the Urban Wildlife Institute in Chicago, says with increasing urbanization, it's critical that animals have places in cities where they can live. He says like parks, golf courses and other urban green spaces, cemeteries can also provide an essential refuge for all sorts of wildlife.

MAGLE: Coyotes, red foxes, skunks, woodchucks, opossum, whitetail deer, beaver...

LACAPRA: Along with more common city residents, like birds and squirrels. It's easy to see why animals would be drawn to a cemetery like Bellefontaine. It's more of a majestic, 19th century park, with thousands of big trees spread out over more than 300 acres. But Magle says some animals can forge even in a place that's just gravestones and grass.

MAGLE: Species like coyotes are not terribly selective about that kind of stuff. It seems like mostly what they're looking for in these urban areas are rabbits. And rabbits like grass, so the rabbits will come in for the grass and then the coyotes may come in for the rabbits.

LACAPRA: The idea of cemeteries as wildlife habitat may seem kind of strange here in America, where most cemeteries are kept pretty manicured. But over in England, where, like in the U.S., urban development and industrial agriculture have reduced wildlife habitat, it's common practice to let at least the older parts of cemeteries go back to a more natural state.

MANDY ELFORD: Nobody wants to go to an overgrown grave for a loved one. But we can have little nesting places here and there.

LACAPRA: Mandy Elford works as an ecologist for the city of Manchester, which is actively trying to make it's cemeteries more wildlife friendly. How do you think the dead would feel about having all this wildlife running around their graves?

ELFORD: I don't think they'll mind one little bit. (Laughter).

LACAPRA: Personally, Elford says, she'd be very happy about it. For NPR News, I'm Veronique LaCapra.


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